By Sarah Gorin, Ros Edwards and Val Gillies
During our research, we have been learning more about the ways that Government agencies such as health, social care and education collect, process and join up information about families. Schools, like other Government agencies collect and process an increasing volume of information about children. Data is collected for administrative purposes, such as: monitoring attendance, attainment, progress and performance; for safeguarding children; and to promote and support education and learning.
Information about children is not only captured by the school for their own and purposes determined by the Government, but also by private educational technology (EdTech) companies who gather data on children via their use of apps, that may be free to download, and recommended by teachers as promoting learning. These companies may sell on information for marketing or research purposes. Since the pandemic the use of EdTech has grown exponentially, meaning the data being gathered on children both through schools and by EdTech providers is greater still, raising the stakes in terms of the protection of children’s personal data.
A new report by The Digital Futures Commission (DFC) ‘Education Data Reality: The challenges for schools in managing children’s education data’ examines the views of professionals who work in or with schools on the procurement of, data protection for, or uses of digital technologies in schools. The report describes the range of EdTech used in schools and the complex issues that managing it presents.
In a blog about the report, the main author Sarah Turner highlights four key issues that constrain children’s best interests:
- The benefits of EdTech and the data processed from children in schools are currently not discernible or in children’s best interests. Nor are they proportionate to the scope, scale and sensitivity of data currently processed from children in schools.
- Schools have limited control or oversight over data processed from children through their uses of EdTech. The power imbalance between EdTech providers and schools is structured in the terms of the use they signed up to and exacerbated by external pressure to use some EdTech services.
- There is a distinct lack of comprehensive guidance for schools on how to manage EdTech providers’ data practices. Nor is there a minimum standard for acceptable features, data practices and evidence-based benefits for schools to navigate the currently fragmented EdTech market and select appropriate EdTech that offers educational benefits proportionate to the data it processes.
- Patchy access to and security of digital devices at school and home due to cost and resource barriers means that access to digital technologies to deliver and receive education remains inequitable.
The report is focused on the processing of education data about families, however there are many interesting parallels with the findings from our project on the way data about families is collected, processed and used by local authorities:
- Firstly, there is a lack of evidence about the benefits of the use of digital technologies in both schools and in local authorities and a lack of understanding about the risks to children’s data privacy.
- There is a lack of government guidance for schools as there is for local authorities about the digital technologies that they employ, meaning that organisations are left individually responsible for ensuring that they are compliant with General Data Protection Regulation (GPPR).
- Schools, like local authorities are time, resource and expertise poor. Often neither have the data protection expertise to understand and consider the risks versus the benefits of data processing for children’s best interests.
- There is a lack of transparency in how data is collected, handled and processed by Government agencies as well as third parties who gain access to data about families, either through children using their apps for educational purposes or through local authorities employing them for the development of predictive analytics systems.
- Public awareness and understanding about how data is collected and processed and the risks of data sharing to children’s privacy are low and are not well understood by parents and children.
We welcome this new report by the Digital Futures Commission and hope that it stimulates more discussion and awareness amongst professionals and families.