Hungry for Your Children’s Data?

FFT Education Datalab’s external affairs manager calls for an HE register

What’s been said?

In early December Claudia Civinini wrote an article on the Tes website entitled, “Disadvantage gap widens when off-rolled pupils counted.” It reported on aspects of the Sutton Trust’s newly published report “Making the Grade,” which examines the impact of the 2015 GCSE reforms on disadvantaged pupils.

The report, authored by Simon Burgess, Professor of Economics at the University of Bristol, and Dave Thomson, chief statistician at FFT Education Datalab, shows a slight widening of the attainment gap between pupils eligible for free school meals and those who are not.

What is striking about Civinini’s article is that the final paragraph seems somewhat detached from the rest of the piece and every other article on this research that we have seen. It reads:

“The researchers also call for the introduction of a register of pupils in home education, and the registration of all alternative providers of education.”

Search the full report and you will find no mention of HE. It is also absent from Sutton Trust’s website and from the two lead articles on FFT Education Datalab’s website [here & here]. So why did Civinini choose to mention HE at all? Philip Nye, quoted in her article, is also the lead author of a series of three blog posts under the title of “Who’s Left 2019.” In the second of these, we find the first mention of HE, in the context of being a probable destination for some off-rolled pupils.

The main point of this series of articles is to say that if the lack of GCSE results for pupils unaccountably removed from schools rolls is factored into the data analysis, then the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged pupils widens significantly.

In the final post however, we find the comment highlighted by Civinini. Here Nye and Thomson list “eight things that the Department for Education needs to do urgently,” stating; “we’ve limited ourselves to the areas we know most about, namely school accountability and record-keeping.” Clearly their understanding of matters outside those areas of expertise is limited, as illustrated by their second recommendation:

“2. Go ahead with the register of pupils being home educated that was proposed by the government earlier this year, and publish national statistics based on this.”

In explaining why they deem such action necessary, they state, “The government itself accepts that this is a symptom of problems in the school system rather than being driven by a change in philosophical beliefs.” How ironic that in order to fix a broken school system, they recommend tracking those damaged by it! Would it not be far better to apply the law and hold schools accountable when they act illegally?

If this was all that FFT Education Datalabs had said on the matter, one might think it was Civinini who had over-egged the pudding, and this was simply a case of another journalist contributing to the hostile environment towards HE. The matter did not end there though. Nye also appeared on talkRADIO’s, The Matthew Wright Show [Listen again: starting at 15:20 approx] and was interviewed for about ten minutes by Wright and Jenny Powell.

The theme was off-rolling, and where off-rolled children were ending up. After three minutes Nye commented [relevant clip below]:

“In other cases we think the kids are being withdrawn into home education and so it’s worth saying there that we don’t have a problem with home education, where it’s done by parents out of free will; but we do think that’s not always the case. We think in some cases there’s a lot of home and not a lot of education. So that’s something we’re concerned about.”

This sparked incredulous comments from Wright and Powell, concluding with Wright suggesting that parents should have to register if they decided to HE. Nye responded:

“That’s right, we think that’s an important thing to do and the government talks about bringing that in but we think whoever comes into power next week needs to go ahead with this because it is a major gap in what we know. Just not knowing where these kids have gone you know as well as not being great for their… we can’t know how they’re doing educationally. It also raises some pretty big concerns for us about safeguarding, for how, how safe those kids are.”

Why does it matter?

Civinini described Nye as a “researcher,” but did not state his specialism. He is the “external affairs manager” for the data research division of the non-profit company FFT Education. The latter “provides accurate and insightful information” to schools, through data analysis, intended “to enable pupils to achieve their full potential, and schools to improve.”

In view of Nye’s specific reference to “school accountability and record-keeping,” there is no suggestion that he has in-depth knowledge of anything beyond processing pupils’ data. On what grounds therefore can he comment on the safeguarding of HE children? This can only be a hear-say concern.

Would it be unfair therefore to suggest that his, and his employer’s, interest have more to do with a lack of data on your children? Nye, after all, stated that there “is a major gap in what we know” adding “we can’t know how they’re doing educationally.” Who is this “we” he repeatedly refers to?

It is not for any educational data-processing company to know about your children’s education without your consent. What are the alternatives to Nye being hungry for your children’s data? Could he have been seeking to stoke the fire of imagined concerns about HE parents?

What can I do?

This debate therefore is not simply about defending your responsibility for your children’s education; it is also about protecting them from non-consensual data sharing between governments and private companies.

We encourage you to look at the defenddigitalme.com website, which “advocates for children’s privacy in data and digital rights.” A good place to start would be their Q&A page on the DfE’s National Pupil Database.

The recent Welsh Consultation made clear that pupil data is shared between England and Wales, so this is not simply a matter for England, but for parents everywhere.