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  1. Government Computing
September 2, 2022

UK government school attendance data sharing plan raises privacy concerns

Contract reveals Department for Education could share attendance data with other organisations.

By Sophia Waterfield

Department for Education (DfE) plans to collect data on children’s school attendance and potentially share it with third parties and other government departments have raised concerns among privacy campaigners.

In an announcement today, DfE said that it would aggregate and visualise data on children’s attendance rates in schools when pupils return to the classrooms next week. It is part of the government’s ambition to increase school attendance, but opponents say a tech-led approach is unlikely to help, and could cause privacy and data protection problems.

Shot of an unrecognisable group of children sitting in their school classroom and raising their hands to answer a question - stock photo
Children’s attendance record data will be shared with the Department for Education, which can share it with local authorities, government departments and other organisations. (Photo by People/ImagesiStock)

The DfE said that schools, academy trusts, local authorities and the government will have access to a “powerful new attendance data visualisation tool” that will help spot and respond to issues around child school attendance.

Expected later in September, the tool will create an interactive national attendance dashboard alongside the publication of fortnightly attendance data. DfE says that this will provide “ongoing transparency” and will improve potential for insight and analysis of daily, weekly and termly trends.

Is DfE sharing attendance data with third parties?

As part of its whitepaper, ‘Working together to improve schools attendance’, the DfE says that the pandemic highlighted the importance of “regular data sharing” and it had been working to establish a better, more timely flow of pupil-level attendance data.

Earlier this year, the DfE awarded a £270,000 contract for “Project_6468 Acquisition of Attendance Data” to Wonde Ltd, based in Suffolk. The tender was for services to “extract school data that is required to enable the Buyer to extract certain attendance records from schools”.

DfE says that the majority of schools already share daily register data with the department, which is aggregated and presented back to schools, academy trusts and local authorities in dashboards. It says that this enables teachers to analyse attendance with greater ease, allowing issues with individual pupils or groups such as children on free school meals to be spotted more quickly.

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A data-driven solution could be less effective

While the DfE believes that data can help solve the issues surrounding low attendance in schools, Professor Sonia Livingstone OBE says that the contract between DfE and Wonde “doesn’t limit data sharing”. Professor Livingstone, who is research lead for the Digital Futures Commission, a research project working to put children’s interests at the centre of the design of the digital world, has her doubts about how effective the solution will be long term. She says that while she agrees that school attendance is important for educational outcomes, it needs to be addressed with a human, not tech-led, approach.

“The DfE announcement does not consider the reasons for low attendance, including the possible inequalities or causes of family difficulty and disadvantage,” she told Tech Monitor. “A data-driven solution may therefore be less effective than a human one – outreach from the school to the family – especially if the data-driven solution inadvertently compounds disadvantage by creating a negative data record for the child.”

Professor Livingstone explains that the Digital Future Commission has found that such data records might follow a child through life, long after family difficulties have been resolved and teachers have forgotten about past attendance.

The DfE whitepaper says that schools could decide which “cohorts of pupils” should be included in the data analysis based on context and school population. It highlights several groups of children including pupils with special educational needs or disabilities, pupils with a social worker, pupils eligible for free school meals and “any pupils from backgrounds in the school community that have, or have historically had, lower attendance than their peers”.

Worries about abuse of data in education

As part of the agreement with Wonde, available on the government’s contract finder, DfE can share data and analytics of the attendance of pupils in schools with other schools trusts, multi-academy trusts and local authorities. It adds that DfE might additionally share the information with other organisations and government departments as required “to support the stated purpose.”

Professor Livingstone says it is unclear whether these organisations would be in the public or private sector. “The DfE contract is concerning in that it doesn’t limit data sharing to the school in question but might, for instance, be shared with future schools or, as part of an analytic profile, be shared with unstated other organisations,” she says.

A DfE spokesperson told Tech Monitor that the data visualisation platform has been built in-house, and draws on data gathered and aggregated by Wonde. When asked which organisations and departments this information would be shared with, the spokesperson flagged the department’s attendance data privacy policy. This does not specify which third parties will be given access to the information, which includes personal details and demographic data. A privacy notice published for the data collection programme states details will be kept on file for 66 years “to enable long-term analysis to be conducted”.

Is pupil data being harvested by third-party organisations?

Earlier this week, Digital Futures Commission and the 5Rights charity released an investigation detailing concerns about data governance in popular remote learning apps Google Classroom and Class Dojo, which have been widely used during the pandemic.

The research found that the implementation and enforcement of law, policy and regulation relating to EdTech had not kept up with the “exponential growth” of schools relying on tech. It also said that both Google Classroom and ClassDojo operated according to “opaque privacy policies and legal terms” which could result in commercial exploitation of children’s education data due to inconsistencies with UK data protection laws.

When contacted by the FT, both Google Classroom and ClassDojo said they have appropriate privacy policies in place and are fully compliant with relevant laws.

Earlier in the year, similar concerns were flagged by Dr Lulu Shi, research fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute, during an oral evidence session on connected technology to the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee. She said that many of the educational products used in schools are free at the point of use, and the ‘cost’ ends up being paid by the children using them.

“There is no financial cost to the government to them being used by schools, but the cost is actually the burden on the children, because it is paid with their data,” she told the committee. “Currently the business model of many tech companies is handling data, so data is the currency. We need to look into that.”

Read more: Rishi Sunak wants more AI in classrooms, but it’s no substitute for teachers

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