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Fellow blogger and Vox Political reader Owen Boswarva has delivered frightening proof of the way parents have been sidelined by Michael Gove’s Department for Education, in order to give away – not even sell – confidential information about our children to private companies.
Mr Boswarva said he had written a blog post about the issue last year, in which he stated his concern about “the low profile of DfE’s NPD initiative. Most of the consultation responses are from organisations with an interest in re-using the data, leavened by some cautionary advice from civil society groups. There are only a couple of responses from schools and a half-dozen or so responses from individual parents (consistently opposed to the proposals).” [Emphasis mine]
“There appears to have been no concerted effort to bring the consultation or the NPD initiative to the attention of parents or pupils (i.e. the data subjects themselves). This is a quote from one of the parents who did respond: ‘I am shocked and appalled that I wasn’t notified about this consultation through my child’s school — I read about it on Twitter of all things. A letter should have gone to every single parent explaining the proposals and how to respond to this consultation.’
“(Now imagine that sentiment amplified via Mumsnet …)”
His full article is available here and makes absorbing reading as it features all of the responses to what the DfE (laughably) called its “consultation”.
In his comment to VP, Mr Boswarva wrote: “Some civil liberties organisations (including Big Brother Watch) did respond to the DfE consultation… The implemented access regime is not quite as bad as the original proposals, but I agree we should be concerned.
“For me the main issue is that parents (and pupils themselves, who are the actual data subjects) are unaware of how the personal data is being shared with third-party organisations.
“There was no press release or any other broad communication to the public when access to NPD data was expanded. (It’s worth noting that most of the broadsheets [newspapers] have been given access to Tier 2 pupil data themselves, so they are probably not keen to rock the boat.)
I have yet to do so (time being against me) but I invite any readers with an interest to download the report, go through it, and report your findings.
I’m off to find a contact address for Mumsnet.
Addendum: I’ve amended this article after Mr Boswarva contacted me to point out that the DfE isn’t, in fact, selling pupil information – the department is giving it away for free. In my opinion this makes its actions even worse. What do you think? (Thanks are due to Mr Boswarva, whose full communication should appear in the comment column below.)
Selling their future: Michael Gove’s Department for Education has put pupils’ confidential information up for sale.
Thanks are due to the Vox Political reader who flagged up the fact that, while plans to sell British citizens’ health records and tax details are currently delayed or in consideration, confidential information about our children is already being passed on to private companies.
Researchers and third-party organisations can apply for detailed information from the national pupil database (NPD), covering pupils at schools and colleges in England.
This includes test and exam results, details of prior attainment and progression at different key stages for pupils in the state sector, attainment data for students in non-maintained special schools, sixth-form and further education colleges, and information on pupils in independent schools, where available.
The database also includes information about pupils’ characteristics, such as gender, ethnicity, first language, eligibility for free school meals, special educational needs (SEN), and pupil absence and exclusions.
Why would anyone want to use such information commercially?
Extracts of this data are available for use by any organisation or person who, “for the purpose of promoting the education or well-being of children in England”, are conducting research or analysis, producing statistics, or providing information, advice or guidance. To whom?
The available data is arranged into ‘tiers’, as follows:
Tier 1 – the most sensitive personal information
Tier 2 – other sensitive personal information, including less sensitive versions of tier 1 data
Tier 3 – school-level data
Tier 4 – other pupil-level data, for example, attainment, absence and exclusions
Users can even request bespoke extracts, with a member of the NPD Data Request team on hand to advise on the approvals process, and whether the information requested is available.
The NPD is also linked to the further and higher education sectors, using data from the individualised learner record (ILR) and Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) student record.
Users can request linked information in the following combinations:
NPD linked to ILR data
NPD linked to HESA student record
NPD linked to both ILR and HESA
Individualised learner record linked to HESA student record
You will not be consulted on whether you wish to allow your child’s information to be given away.
This means a huge amount of information about your children is now available to third parties and – considering the government guidance note from which this information is drawn is almost a month old – may already have been handed over.
Confidential information on – for example – exam and test results, special educational needs, absence and exclusions, and eligibility for free school meals could have a serious impact on a pupil’s prospects in adult life, if used to inform organisations that are hiring school leavers, for example.
There are safeguards. Organisations requesting information need to demonstrate that they comply with all relevant requirements of the Data Protection Act 1998, including proving that they are registered with the Information Commissioner’s Office to process personal data or fall within an exemption, have appropriate security arrangements in place to process the data, intend to use the data only for a specified purpose, will keep the data only for a specified length of time, and will not share the data without our prior written approval.
Considering this government’s track record, how safe does that make you feel?
Addendum: I’ve amended this article after Owen Boswarva contacted me to point out that the DfE isn’t, in fact, selling pupil information – the department is giving it away for free. In my opinion this makes its actions even worse. What do you think?
It seems that the Department for Work and Pensions is sticking to the ‘Adolf Hitler’ model of public relations: If you tell a big lie and repeat it often enough, people will believe it. The press release announcing the new ‘Health and Work Service’ is riddled with long-debunked old lies – and one new statement that deserves our scrutiny.
This is the press release used by the BBC in its article on Saturday, telling us that the new, privately-run service is needed to combat the high cost of long-term absence from work.
It seems to be the DWP’s new practice to pass announcements to – let’s call them “trusted” – media outlets before putting them up on the government’s own press website, as a kind of test-run, allowing any credibility problems to be fixed before the government commits itself in an official way.
That’s why the announcement appeared on the government website yesterday (Monday) – two days after the BBC broke the story. Now – in just half the time it took to appear – let’s look at why it’s a load of rubbish.
“As many as 960,000 employees were on sick leave for a month or more each year on average between October 2010 and September 2013, the government has revealed,” the document begins.
Oh really? The DWP reached this figure by applying the findings of a survey, showing the ratio of long-term absences to total days of sickness absence, to findings by the Labour Force Survey showing the total number of days of sickness absence in the UK. That’s 9,000 sick days and 70 absences, applied to an average of 120 million sick days per year. This is based on 2,019 interviews with employees. There’s just one problem.
Considering the huge size difference between the sample surveyed and the body it represents, it seems unlikely in the extreme that the figure is accurate. If it is right, it would be by luck; it’s probably wrong. The figure might as well have been made up – and you should treat it as though it was.
“The government has already taken big steps in getting people on long-term sick benefits back into work as part of the government’s long-term economic plan, with almost a quarter of a million coming off incapacity benefits since 2010-” Let’s stop there and examine the information content of this sentence so far.
The “government’s long-term economic plan” is a phrase that is being shoe-horned into every press release possible and means nothing. There never was a “long-term economic plan”, and there isn’t one now. Have you seen it? Of course not – it doesn’t exist. This is just a comforting nonsense inserted to lull people into false security that somebody knows what they are doing; I suspect the newly-privatised “nudge” unit may have had something to do with this.
As for “almost a quarter of a million coming off incapacity benefits since 2010”, check out this interview with Iain Duncan Smith, published in the Telegraph & Argus in 2010. He said: “I intend to move 1.5 million off incapacity benefit by 2014.”
That is a long way from a quarter of a million, and only around one-tenth of the Secretary-in-a-State’s 2010 target.
“- and almost a million who put in a claim actually have been found fit for work.” This is a bare-faced lie. It relates to a statement that 980,400 people were judged capable of work between 2008 and March 2013, but there are two problems with this. Firstly, it does not take into account the number of successful appeals against the ‘fit for work’ judgement (125,700); when adjusted to account for these, the total drops to 854,700. Secondly, this refers to the cumulative number of ‘fit for work’ outcomes of initial functional assessments since October 2008, and it seems likely that many people will have made repeat claims after being knocked off-benefit by an adverse decision. We do not know how many people have done this. Therefore the figure is meaningless.
So far, the DWP has told us that working people get sick (no surprises there), that it has failed to reach its target for clearing people off incapacity benefit and that its work capability assessment system is failing to push as many off-benefit as it should, because it is riddled with errors.
How does this connect with the creation of a new ‘Health and Work Service’, dedicated to ensuring that people who spend more than four weeks at a time off work with an illness get back into their job with a minimum of difficulty?
It’s obvious, isn’t it?
This is a scheme to ensure that people are discouraged from claiming incapacity benefits; the idea is that a drop in new claims, coupled with the number of uncontested ‘fit for work’ decisions, might lead to a larger drop in the number of active claims – which means the amount of money being paid out in benefits would also drop.
Inclusion of the word ‘health’ in the title of the new service is misleading, as it seems unlikely that consideration of an employee’s physical condition will have anything to do with the aim of the exercise.
Look at what the release has to say: “The Health and Work Service will offer a work-focused occupational health assessment and case management to employees in the early stages of sickness absence.”
It continues: “The work-focused occupational health assessment will identify the issues preventing an employee from returning to work and draw up a plan for them, their employer and GP, recommending how the employee can be helped back to work more quickly.”
Health doesn’t get a look-in.
No, what we’re most probably seeing is an expansion of the “biopsychosocial” method employed in work capability assessments, in an attempt to convince sick people that their illnesses are all in their minds. Don’t expect this approach to be used for people with broken limbs or easily-medicated diseases; this is for the new kinds of ‘subjective illness’, for which medical science has not been prepared – ‘chronic pain’, ‘chronic fatigue syndrome’, fibromyalgia and the like.
People with these conditions will probably be sent back to work – with speed. Their conditions may worsen, their lives may become an unending hell of pain and threats – I write from experience, as Mrs Mike spent around two years trying to soldier on in her job before finally giving up and claiming her own incapacity benefits – but that won’t matter to the DWP as long as they’re not claiming benefits.
That is what we can all expect from the new ‘service’.
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