What is the DfE doing with attendance data?



Earlier this year, the UK's Department for Education (DfE) asked schools to participate in a new online daily attendance tracker trial. It aims to collect real-time data from school registers, providing information to help address absentee and attendance issues quickly and efficiently.

UK-based education technology (edtech) firm Wonde is providing technical assistance. Created in 2015, Wonde provides edtech software and data collection platforms that integrate within a school's existing online systems. The idea is to streamline the schools' data collection processes, increasing data security and efficiency and providing crucial analytics insights for future administrative and education improvements.

Sounds impressive.  But how is the UK Government's first significant edtech experiment working out?

Let's explore.  

Why did the government introduce the electronic attendance tracking trial?

The trial is part of a broader range of measures introduced to combat worrying levels of absenteeism. A report from Education Datalab, an independent education policy and practice analysis firm, found that nearly 25% of year 11 pupils had a high level of absenteeism during the first term of the 2021/22 school year. Moreover, the majority of those come from families facing economic hardships.  

Nadhim Zahawi, who was Education Secretary when the pilot scheme was announced, said:

"We need to reduce the number of pupils reaching the absentee stage where legal intervention is necessary by driving proactive improvements in proactive schools. The attendance trial will help end the postcode lottery of how attendance is managed in different schools and parts of the country, and make sure every child and family get the best possible support to attend school as regularly as possible."

Rachel de Souza, Children's Commissioner for England, welcomed the trial. The former headteacher has called for similar measures for years, arguing that digital infrastructure in UK schools requires a 21st-century upgrade.  

"We need to see the attendance data now," De Souza told MPs back in 2021. "Live attendance data can identify between 80,000 and 100,000 children who are not on school rolls and potentially help schools address system-wide issues more quickly.

What are the long-term plans for the attendance trial?

This is the first time the DfE has commissioned such a trial. And they're hoping it works. The trial is the first step toward the DfE's long-term goal of using more edtech startups and firms to upgrade data reporting systems in schools across the UK.

In an email sent out to schools, the DfE wrote, "The Department for Education will run the trial over the coming months to see whether daily attendance data can help the government understand and manage sector-wide trends. We want schools to use it to understand what may be causing children to be absent from school. It is part of our ambition to introduce more automated data collection in the future."

So how is it going?

Since its launch in late February, the Wonde platform has collected daily attendance data from 14,000 schools. In addition to information on attendance rates, it has also collected data on pupils' sex, ethnicity, free school meal eligibility, and special educational needs.

So has the scheme made the grade? Well, according to some, the answer is a no.  

In fact, the attendance trial report card makes for some worrying reading.

The biggest - and most disturbing - criticisms have come from the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO), an independent authority for upholding information rights in the public interest.  

According to documents seen by Schools Week, the ICO directly challenged the DfE assessment that the scheme's risk was 'low,' stating that the DfE didn't perform a data protection impact assessment (DPIA) until just one week before the project went live.

Oh dear. Talk about leaving your homework to the lastminute.

An old fashioned alarm clock next to a pile of homework

DPIAs are designed to identify risks from processing personal data and implement measures to minimise those risks as much as possible. DPIAs are crucial for negating risk and demonstrating compliance with data protection regulations.

Documents obtained by the campaign group Defend Digital Me revealed the extent of the ICO concerns. Around the 15th of February, the ICO asked the DfE to suspend the pilot until a full risk assessment could be done. The DfE responded by saying this was 'not possible.'

And it gets worse.

In an email sent to participating schools, the DfE claimed it had worked closely with the ICO to assess and manage all data risks. The ICO has since demanded that the DfE correct this 'inaccurate' evaluation of the risk assessment process.

It's time for some explaining...

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) union, is one of the many voices demanding an explanation. Barton believes schools would have thought twice about participating if they knew how the DfE had managed - or maybe even manipulated - the due diligence processes. Mr Barton said:

"We want a full explanation about what went wrong and the concerns raised. From the DfE email, schools would have formed the impression the data protection impact assessment had been sorted with the ICO, when the ICO had not seen the impact assessment at that stage."

"This is completely unacceptable. If schools had known that an important part of the process for safeguarding data had not actually been completed, it is unlikely they would have signed up to the trial."

Why 66 years?

There's another reason the DfE might need a visit to the Head Teacher's office.

The ICO believes the DfE has not been clear about the "specific legislation" underpinning the data collection; namely, the DfE's plans to hold all student data for 66 years.

The watchdog wants the DfE to provide a more detailed rationale behind its decision to hold onto the data for so long. The ICO responded by opening up 'informal discussions' about the matter. But, as of yet, neither the ICO nor DfE have released any details.

Defend Digital Me also wants more transparency around the DfE's decision to hold onto student data beyond a reasonable timeframe. Defend Digital Me Director Jen Persson said:

"The volume of sensitive data to be sent to the DfE for66 years is vast, the DfE suggests that it's no different from what was collected before, just more often. But if so, then why change it?"

Good question. So what happens next?

The government has already scaled back some of the data collection. At the beginning of March, the DfE announced it would only collect COVID-related absence data once a week. It also reduced the number of questions asked.

And it reversed plans to switch from a fortnightly reporting of attendance data to weekly collection and reporting.

A classroom with computers set up

The lasting impact of the trial

The news regarding some of the DfE' oversights' would have left a bad taste in some people's mouths.

However, the general sentiment regarding the UK edtech market remains strong. Edtech investment is at bullish levels, and teachers and educators are hugely optimistic about future edtech impact.  

A survey published on EducationTechnology.com shows that 88% of teachers believe edtech integration will lead to better student outcomes. Over half of these feel that they've already seen a positive impact. And most teachers (65%) believe edtech software has and will continue to reduce time-consuming, non-student-focused workloads in the future.

Final thoughts

This isn't the first time the DfE has been accused of mishandling sensitive data. It's important not to overlook the severity of the ICO's concerns. A 2020 audit report from the ICO outlined how the department had broken data protection laws in handling pupil information.

The DfE's insistence on holding and storing so much data will inevitably create suspicion. For example, why do they want it for so long? What are they planning to do with it? And what potential misuses does this open up?  

Moreover, it's just a bad look for the DfE and the UK Government, displaying a lack of awareness and diligence toward the most significant issues of an increasingly digital world.

As our lives move evermore online, departments like the DfE should be looking at ways to collect less data or at least collect it in safe, secure, and, at a bare minimum, compliant ways. The technology to do it is already here, and Blockchain and distributed ledger are just two of the ways sensitive data can simultaneously be accessible and secure.

At AXD we're experts in edtech. Read more of our thoughts on the future of education and technology on our website, or get in touch to discuss how we can support your organisation.

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