The 1996 Education Act provided for each school in England and Wales to return a census to the DfES. Initially the information requested from the school was limited to general, statistical data, although a series of amendments to s537 gradually increased the amount of information collected.
The last amendment(SI2000 no. 3370) which came into effect on January 18th 2001 had a dramatic effect. Suddenly, far more detailed information about each pupil was required for the first time, and schools were told to include pupils' names and postcodes alongside Unique Pupil Numbers. Click here to see the information requested by PLASC.
The amendment placed a statutory duty upon schools to supply the information - in other words, a school has to comply. Such a statutory duty also provides an 'exception' to the provisions of the Data Protection Act, which means that the consent of the pupil's parents, or the pupil if over 16, need not be sought. Normally, the supply of this type of information would require their written consent.
Head teachers expressing concern about PLASC were directed to the DfES census site where the FAQ "Isn't PLASC an invasion of pupils' privacy?" was effectively answered with: Don't worry about that - just do as you're told.
Schools have been supplied with software to enable the supply of PLASC information. According to an article in the TES (11.01.02 'The Biggest Census Ever') it is hoped that this software will ultimately capture information directly from each school's own database.
The Secretary of State for Education confirmed in a written parliamentary answer in February 2001 that the DfES was planning to introduce a 'tracking' system for all children and young people, based on information gained via the 'Pupil Level Annual Schools Census' (PLASC).
In November, a government statistics document (needs Adobe Acrobat) described a 'shared vision' of UK-wide pupil databases supplied by information from the schools census.
ARCH first heard about PLASC from an item in the BBC online news. A school governor had been fighting to bring the issue to public attention, and his persistence brought about this report, and the support of the Daily Telegraph.
The DfES is doggedly insisting that they '...carried out a major consultation exercise involving LEAs, schools, teacher unions, parents' organisations, the Information Commissioner and 'leading civil liberties organisations'.
If you are not part of the DfES and have been consulted, we would love to hear from you. So far we haven't found anyone who knew about this census in advance - and that includes several MPs; the 'leading civil liberties organisations' Liberty, Privacy International and Children's Rights Alliance for England; many school governors; thousands of families - the most important group of all. It is worth remembering that s7 of the 1996 Education Act makes education the responsibility of parents.
Anyone telephoning the DfES during January will have been told that the DfES 'won't' share pupils' names and addresses with anyone else - they are needed purely for 'technical' reasons. Quite apart from the insult of removing our children's privacy simply for technical reasons, it appears from a written parliamentary answer from the Minister for Schools, Stephen Timms, that 'won't' has already become 'maybe'. He still maintains that nobody will have access to pupils' information - and then immediately lists the people who will have such access. Researchers, for example - and the Secretary of State will also consider future applications. Stephen Timms also mentions sharing information with 'Connexions'...
The Connexions Service includes another 'tracking' database for 13-19-year-olds, about which widespread concern over issues of data-sharing and privacy has been expressed by many agencies. See our letter to the Information Commissioner to get some idea of these issues.
Callers to the DfES have been told that DfES 'won't' share PLASC information with Connexions. LEAs were e-mailed with this assurance to pass on to enquirers - and, in the same e-mail, were told that ARCH (and the Daily Telegraph) were giving out grossly misleading information.
Take another look at the list of people and agencies with whom Stephen Timms has said DfES may share information. That's right - Connexions.
The official DfES line is that addresses are not being sought - only postcodes!! When someone resorts to such desperate straw-clutching one can only wonder what is going on.
All we are asking for is some honest, open debate - not patronising reassurances. Families want the whole PLASC issue debated in parliament. We want the DfES to explain what they are doing, and we also want to hear any counter-arguments from 'leading civil liberties organisations' before any decision is made as to whether the PLASC database is A Good Thing.
Nobody is remotely interested in Scout's Honour promises that the DfES 'won't' use information - and Stephen Timms' WPA shows just how easily such promises can be broken. We want to know what the government could do with the PLASC database. We want to know the extent of the DfES' data-sharing powers. In view of the increasing involvement of the private sector in education, this is vitally important. Who could access information in the future without our knowledge or consent?
Enough of this 'Trust me, I'm a politician' from the DfES. Enough hair-splitting and meta-argument about the difference between addresses and postcodes, 'tracking' and 'surveillance'. We want debate, and we want it urgently!