Influential educationalists on the Attendance Action Alliance seek to move the boundaries of State overreach further into family life.
What’s been said?
In politics, we are accustomed to hearing about new policies via carefully crafted and stage-managed statements from ministers. However, the vast majority of policies are created for the political parties by the civil service, and much of this is a long time in the making. Usually, we are not privy to background policy formation discussions and the public tend only to learn of new laws and policies when they take force.
Sharp-eyed campaigners, however, know where to dig for information and the Byte is immensely grateful to one such campaigner for unearthing the Attendance Action Alliance. This is a Department for Education Committee, set up in December 2021 with the “single aim of raising attendance and a single belief that ultimately children are better off in education – and all barriers to this should be removed.”
Who wouldn’t agree that children should be educated? The problem is that behind the next carefully crafted phrase ‘all barriers to this should be removed’ is the possibility of replacing parental autonomy with state diktats.
Why does it matter?
Careful reading of the minutes of the Attendance Action Alliance (28 April 2022) reveals a long term ambition of the Children’s Commissioner for all individual children to have a ‘Unique Identifier’ that would “identify children with additional needs so that support can be consistent for them” and that would “support multi-agency approaches to identifying children missing education.”
Let us be quite clear what this means. This is a proposal for a national database of all children, with flags to highlight individual children whom the Government wants to monitor with a view to intervening in the life of the child and family. Effectively, this is a revival of the Blairite New Labour’s Contact Point database of every child which was scrapped due to public concern, with the Coalition Government saying that “the system was disproportionate to the problem.” When Government says ‘disproportionate,’ it means that it doesn’t comply with the Human Rights Act and they fear being taken to court for a breach of that Act.
The minutes also contain a comment from Professor Dame Clare Gerada – President, Royal College of General Practitioners – highlighting the ‘importance of the data sharing between schools and GPs’ and asking ‘whether more can be done to link health and education data.’
In plain terms these two very influential people are pushing for another Contact Point database, but with one significant difference: there doesn’t appear to be any intention to make it public, i.e. they wish to covertly share data about families for the purpose of policing them, without any intention of first seeking the consent of parents.
How does this affect home educators? The clue is in another statement from Nichola Vasey, Head of Vulnerable Children Attendance Team (at the DfE), who states that children can be labelled as “missing education” (CME) if they are “not on a school roll” (whether or not they are known to services) and that such children are at risk of, amongst many other things, radicalisation.
Effectively, the Attendance Action Alliance is looking at a legal threshold for home educated children which, under their terms, would allow local authorities to trawl public services for their private data once they become aware of them.
We have been here before, of course. First with the Contact Point database in England and then with Scotland’s Named Person scheme which was struck down by the Supreme Court. However, that’s the public face of data-sharing. As reported in a recent Byte, many local authorities have used personal data-sharing programmes for a number of years such as Liquid Logic’s system which provides “a holistic view of the child and family.”
The legal basis for this sharing is complex and governed by a range of Acts, but it is covered by the essential principles of necessity and consent. Worcester Council, for example, explains its mental health data-sharing thus:
“Information will only ever be shared when it is strictly necessary to help us provide effective services and you may have the right to refuse. We will not pass it onto any other parties unless required to do so by law or in all reasonable circumstances the disclosure is fair and warranted for the purposes of processing or subject to a legal data protection exemption.”
Solicitor and social worker Allan Norman explained this beautifully in his opinion on Scotland’s Named Person policy (points 7 & 8), which was all about information sharing:
“Ultimately, information sharing is permitted in two situations:
a) with consent; and
b) where it is necessary
To be clear, while there are several alternatives to consent, every one of the alternatives has a requirement of necessity. This should be neither surprising nor objectionable: you can share information when you need to, and whether or not you need to, you can share information with permission. But the Data Protection Act simply does not allow – anywhere – for information to be shared without consent when it is not necessary to do so.”
To be quite clear, Government is not allowed to go on fishing trips for your personal data just in case there is a problem. But that is just what is hinted at by the Attendance Action Alliance.
Probably the most concerning aspect of this is the push to link health and education data. Medical confidentiality is of the utmost importance for maintaining trust and confidence. If you feel that taking your child to the GP will result in the local council knowing something you want to be kept private, then that is a dangerous problem. We must be able to see our GPs in the full knowledge that our privacy is assured.
What can I do?
First, if you are not already familiar with the importance of keeping your family’s personal data private, Defend Digital Me (though mainly focused on protecting the data of children in school,) highlight important issues on their website. If you need to understand more about how easy it is for LAs to share your family’s data without your knowledge, and therefore your consent, we recently featured the findings of the “Parental Social Licence for Data Linkage for Service Intervention” research team; despite the mouthful of a title, the accompanying video is easily digestible. If you have not done so already, you can watch it here.
If, for example, a local authority home education officer has written a report on your child’s home education, you can submit a data protection subject access request to obtain a copy of it. If you then find that report is inaccurate, or contains personal information the authority is not entitled to, then you can complain to the Information Commissioner. You can take the local authority to court if the report damages you in some way.
However, the political problem for home educators is convincing the Government that the fact of being a home educator does not entitle Government to anything more than that fact, except ‘if it appears’ that your child is not receiving a suitable education.