State schools in England are legally required to submit school census returns to the Department for Education (DfE). The information includes personal details and test results for each pupil and is stored on the National Pupil Database (NPD).
Official information about the NPD aimed at parents is not easy to find*. There appears to be no government guide aimed at parents and young people.
This ‘lack of transparency’ has earned a rebuke from the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), Schools Week reports.
In a letter seen by the paper, the ICO said many parents and pupils are ‘either entirely unaware of the school census and the inclusion of that information in the national pupil database or are not aware of the nuances within the data collection, such as which data is compulsory and which is optional.’
In other words, many parents and young people don’t know about the school census, don’t know individual data will be stored on the NPD and don’t know which details are legally required and which are not.
The ICO said the DfE didn’t comply with the General Date Protection Regulations (GDPR). In particular, it hadn’t told parents children’s data could be shared with the Home Office.
Between 2016 and 2018, the NPD recorded information about children’s nationality of and place of birth. This statutory requirement was removed after a national outrage.
By law, pupils’ personal data isn’t just shared with schools and local authorities. It can be disclosed to ‘other government departments and agencies’ and, even more controversially, by ‘organisations who make products connected with promoting the education or wellbeing of children in England’.
Such disclosure is subject to strict conditions but raises concerns about pupils’ personal data being accessed by third parties.
The DfE describes the NPD as ‘one of the richest education datasets in the world holding a wide range of information about pupils and students.’ This raises a serious question: why should the government want to keep detailed information about every state-educated child in England?
Personal data is a valuable commodity. It may seem far-fetched, but would access to the NPD be included in any future trade deal? It would be very useful indeed to overseas companies flogging educational and training products to have such detailed information about every single state-educated child and young person in England going back to 2002 when the NPD was first produced.
*After some digging, I found an official ‘user guide’ dated 2013 but this will be out-of-date and was not intended for parents. The Open Rights Group has a guide as does Wikipedia but I found no DfE information aimed at parents and young people. DfE information, apart from one press release, was for users or about data protection.
FOOTNOTE: The Guardian has also covered this story.