UK education department faces sanction over data protection breaches

By on 27/11/2019 | Updated on 04/02/2022
The ICO has warned of a “lack of transparency by the DfE” because parents and children were not informed their data could be shared with the Home Office. (Image courtesy: Ethan Wilkinson, Pexels).

The UK Department for Education (DfE) is facing disciplinary action for what a watchdog has called “wide ranging and serious concerns” over data protection breaches.

Privacy regulator the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) found that the DfE had flouted data protection rules by sharing information about school pupils’ nationality and place of birth with the Home Office, in a move that highlights the limitations on data sharing between government departments.  

The ICO investigated the DfE after it received a letter from Against Borders for Children (ABC) – represented by human rights organisation Liberty – complaining that the information shared with the Home Office was used for immigration checks.

The ICO said this and further concerns raised by “a number of other sources” had prompted it to consider taking further action against the department. According to the ICO’s decision letter – seen by Schools Week – the ABC complaint “highlighted clear deficiencies in the processing of pupil personal data by the DfE”.

It found the DfE is failing to comply fully with its data protection obligations “primarily in the areas of transparency and accountability, where there are far reaching issues, impacting a huge number of individuals in a variety of ways.”

Hostile environment

Under a memorandum of understanding signed in June 2015, the DfE had agreed to share the personal details of up to 1,500 schoolchildren with the Home Office each month as part of the ‘hostile environment’ policy. The policy, introduced by former prime minister Theresa May when she was home secretary in 2012, aims to make it as difficult as possible for people without ‘leave to remain’ to stay in the UK.

As reported by The Independent, in April 2018, following legal action brought by ABC and a boycott of the DfE’s information-gathering work in which 200,000 families took part, the DfE announced it would no longer ask schools to collect nationality and country of birth data. The data had been collected via the school census and continues to be kept on the National Pupil Database.

According to the ICO, the DfE does not need consent to collect and retain nationality and birth data. However, it found the government was failing to fully comply with GDPR because many parents and pupils are “either entirely unaware of the school census and the inclusion of that information in the National Pupil Database or are not aware of the nuances within the data collection, such as which data is compulsory and which is optional”.

“This has raised concerns about the adequacy of DfE’s privacy notices and their accountability for the provision of such information to individuals regarding the processing of personal data for which they are ultimately data controllers,” Elizabeth Denham, the information commissioner, wrote. 

Human right to privacy

Liberty argued that the DfE had made schools complicit in the ‘hostile environment’ by sharing children’s addresses with immigration enforcement. 

Calling for the practice to be brought to an “immediate end”, Liberty warned that many parents were afraid to send their children to school and argued that the practices violated children’s fundamental human right to privacy.

Lara ten Caten, a lawyer at Liberty, accused the DfE of making schools “unknowingly and unwittingly complicit in the government’s hostile environment” and said it was “shameful” that children’s data was being used to assist attempts to deport their parents. 

She added, as reported by The Independent: “Public services must be permanently separated from immigration enforcement, which is why Liberty is demanding firewalls across not just the education system, but across all essential public services. The DfE must also delete all children’s nationality and country of birth data collected immediately.”

In a statement shared with The Guardian, the Home Office said it can only request information from the Department for Education “for immigration enforcement purposes in circumstances where they have clear evidence a child may be at risk or there is evidence of illegal activity, including illegal immigration.”

The DfE said it was unable to respond because of general election purdah constraints.

About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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