1. A change in the law for school starters in Scotland — through FOI

    Kids in Scotland can start school at the age of four and a half, if that makes sense for them. The school year begins in August, and any child who turns four from the February before can enter Primary 1.

    But not every child is ready to progress from nursery to school, just because they’ve hit the age when they’re legally able to.

    We spoke to Patricia Anderson from the Give Them Time campaign about how Freedom of Information requests, sent via WhatDoTheyKnow, helped them get the law changed. From 2023, those kids who aren’t quite ready for school will still be able to benefit from more nursery time — and their parents will be able to rest easy that they won’t be charged fees for that extra year.

    A confusing state of affairs

    We began by asking Patricia to explain a bit more about the campaign, and to spell out the underlying issue for us.

    “Give Them Time is a grassroots movement which evolved in 2018 from parents across Scotland sharing their own, often difficult, experiences of applying for a further year of nursery funding for their child”, she told us.

    WhatDoTheyKnow has had an absolutely invaluable impact on the campaign.

    “No child in Scotland is legally required to be formally educated in Scotland until the August after they turn five years old. Therefore, any child still aged four at the school commencement date in August doesn’t need to start school (or be home educated) until the following August a year later.

    “This is set out in the Education (Scotland) Act 1980, section 32, sub-section 3. However, currently only those with January and February birthdays have an automatic entitlement to a free further year of early learning and childcare (nursery) whereas those children who turn five after the school commencement date in August and by 31st December have to apply to their local authority to be considered for this funding.”

    So in other words, while there is a recognition in law that any four-year-olds should have the option to defer, parents have to apply for the relevant funding for all but the youngest (those with birthdays in January or February), but have no certainty that they’ll receive it?

    “Yes”, says Patricia. “There seemed to be a lack of awareness of the legal right to defer any child who hadn’t reached the age of five by the school commencement date, as well as a lot of misinformation being passed around about whether parents could even apply to their local authority for funding for a further year of nursery or not.

    “With this in mind, I set up a Facebook group called Deferral Support Scotland in May 2018 as I felt there wasn’t a central place where parents could go to find out more about deferral options and what the process was for applying for continued nursery funding in their local authority area.

    “Three weeks later, after hearing disturbing stories of parents’ experiences which indicated varied practices across the country, members of the Facebook group decided to set up a campaign for a more transparent, consistent and child-centred approach to so called ‘discretionary’ deferrals. And so, Give Them Time was born.”

    FOI for gathering hard evidence

    As with so many campaigns, Facebook had proved to be an effective space for gathering like-minded folk together, and a catalyst for action. But how did Give Them Time move from Facebook to the use of Freedom of Information requests?

    “We realised from the outset that to be taken seriously, we needed hard evidence of national disparities rather than anecdotes, so that’s when we started submitting FOI requests to all local authorities across the country. We wanted to establish whether the anecdotal accounts could be supported by factual data.”

    WhatDoTheyKnow was very easy to use and the transparency it provided appealed to us, as we felt it would further enhance the credibility of the campaign.

    FOI was just one of the tools used by this savvy campaign, as they realised that data could be well supplemented with parents’ real life stories.

    These testimonies demonstrated the issue well, with one parent saying, “They knew but seem to try to put you off the idea, make statements like ‘they’ll be fine’, etc”.

    Others pointed to the stress and frustration of the bureaucracy and mixed messages they had to navigate, all while contending with worries about what was really best for their own child. Patricia explains how the campaign gathered these comments:

    “We used online surveys to gather evidence about people’s experiences of finding out about and applying to their local authority for continued nursery funding. The quantitative data provided by the FOI responses supported the findings of our qualitative surveys.”

    You can see all the data, qualitative and quantitative, on the Evidence page of the campaign’s website.

    The benefits of using WhatDoTheyKnow

    Using FOI is one thing, but the decision to do so via WhatDoTheyKnow does not always follow — so we were curious to learn what had informed the campaign in doing so.

    This WhatDoTheyKnow website is an absolutely phenomenal tool to have freely available to the public. It helps the public to use FOI legislation in the way it was intended without fear.

    “I discovered WhatDoTheyKnow by chance when searching online for deferral information. It was very easy to use and the transparency it provided appealed to us, as we felt it would further enhance the credibility of the campaign.

    “It’s very easy to share a link to an FOI response on WhatDoTheyKnow rather than search through emails and forward them on. It also removed the fear we had of potentially sharing confidential information by mistake as responses are published by WhatDoTheyKnow on the internet, and councils know this will happen in advance so it removed the onus on us to police this.”

    This was great to hear, as while we’ve heard many benefits to using WhatDoTheyKnow through the years, we don’t think we’ve heard this precise one before. Of course, the ease of publicly linking to a webpage is something that we appreciate, but the added dimension of mitigating the risk of sharing confidential information was a detail we hadn’t considered (and of course, that’s not to say that authorities don’t sometimes make mistakes, but it does add that extra layer of protection, for sure).

    Patricia added that WhatDoTheyKnow was integral to their success:

    “WhatDoTheyKnow has had an absolutely invaluable impact on the campaign. The credibility it helped us to achieve, as well as the actual data provided by the FOI responses, enabled us to successfully lobby the Scottish Government to change the law.

    “On 7 December 2020, the process was started to amend existing legislation so that from August 2023, any four-year-old deferring their primary one start will automatically be entitled to a free further year of early learning and childcare.”

    You can see some of the media coverage of this decision here.

    You should use it, too

    Finally, we asked if Patricia had any advice for anyone else wondering whether to use FOI for their campaign, or to help bring about a change in the law.

    “Don’t hesitate to use it. This WhatDoTheyKnow website is an absolutely phenomenal tool to have freely available to the public. WhatDoTheyKnow helps the public to use FOI legislation in the way it was intended without fear.”

    We often cover stories of corruption, injustice, finance and other very adult topics — and while those are all crucial matters that deserve transparency, it is also very gratifying to hear about the site being used to benefit thousands of children and their families, in a way that hurts no-one and removes worry and frustration for many. Well done to the Give Them Time campaign.

    Image: Jelleke Vanooteghem

  2. Using WhatDoTheyKnow to uncover how schoolchildren’s data was used to support the Hostile Environment

    Freedom of Information forms the basis of many a campaign that seeks to expose hidden facts, or stories which should be in the public eye.

    We spoke to Jen Persson, Director of defenddigitalme, about that organisation’s tireless campaign to get to the truth on the collection, handling and re-use of schoolchildren’s personal data in England.

    What emerged was a timeline of requests and responses — sometimes hard fought for — which when pieced together reveal secrecy, bad practice and some outright falsehoods from the authorities to whom we entrust our children’s data. Perhaps most striking of the findings was the sharing of data with the Home Office in support of their Hostile Environment policy.

    As Jen describes defenddigitalme’s campaign, “It began with trying to understand how my daughter’s personal information is used by the Department for Education; it became a campaign to get the use of 23 million records made safe”.

    It’s a long tale, but definitely worth the read.

    December 2012: consultations and changes

    The story begins here, although it would still be a couple of years before Jen became aware of the issues around children’s data, “despite — or perhaps because of — having three young children in school at the time”.

    Why did no one at all seem to know where millions of children’s personal data was being sent out to, or why, or for how long?

    As Jen explains, “During the Christmas holidays, the Department for Education (DfE) announced a consultation about changing data laws on how nationally stored school pupil records could be used, proposing that individual pupil-level records could be given away to third parties, including commercial companies, journalists, charities, and researchers. Campaigners raised alarm bells, pointing out that the personal data would be highly identifying, sensitive, and insecure — but the changes went through nonetheless.”

    2014: discovering the power of FOI

    Jen came across that change in law for herself when reading about a later, similar data issue in the press: there were plans to also make available medical records from GP practices. This prompted her first foray into FOI, “to answer some of the questions I had about the plans, which weren’t being published”.

    I feel strongly that if I am going to ask for information which has a cost in time and capacity in the public sector, then it should mean the answers become available to everyone.

    And that first step got her thinking:

    “At around the same time I asked the DfE a simple question, albeit through a Subject Access rather than FOI request: What personal data do you hold about my own child?

    “My Subject Access request was refused. The Department for Education would not tell me what data they held about my children, and as importantly, could not tell me who they had given it to.

    “There was nothing at all in the public domain about this database the DfE held, beyond what the campaigners in 2012 had exposed. It wasn’t even clear how big it was. How was it governed? Who decided where data could be sent out to and why? How was it audited and what were the accountability mechanisms? And why was the DfE refusing its lawful obligations to tell me what they held about my daughter, let me correct errors, and know where it had gone? Why did no one at all seem to know where millions of children’s personal data was being sent out to, or why, or for how long?

    “Prior to all this, I’d never even heard of Freedom of Information. But I knew that there was something wrong and unjust about commercial companies and journalists being able to access more personal data about our children than we could ourselves.

    I worded some questions badly. I learned how to write them better. And I’m still learning.

    “I needed to understand how the database operated in order to challenge it. I needed to be able to offer an evidenced and alternative view of what could be better, and why. FOI was the only way to start to obtain information that was in the public interest.

    “I believed it should be published in the public domain. WhatDoTheyKnow is brilliant at that. I feel strongly that if I am going to ask for information which has a cost in time and capacity in the public sector, then it should mean the answers become available to everyone.”

    And so Jen went on a crash course to learn about FOI, reading books by Heather Brookes and Matthew Burgess, and WhatDoTheyKnow’s own guidance pages.

    “I tried to ask for information I knew existed or should exist, that would support the reasons for the changes we needed in data handling. I worded some questions badly. I learned how to write them better. And I’m still learning.”

    2015: sharing children’s personal data with newspapers

    That was just the beginning: at the time of writing, Jen has made over 80 FOI requests in public via WhatDoTheyKnow.com .

    Through FOI, defenddigitalme has discovered who has had access to the data about millions of individuals, and under what precepts, finding such astonishing rationales as: “The Daily Telegraph requested pupil-level data and so suppression was not applicable.” The publication “wished to factor in the different types of pupil” attending different schools.

    Jen explains: “This covered information on pupil characteristics related to prior attainment: gender, ethnic group, language group, free school meal eligibility (often used as a proxy for poverty indicators) and SEN (Special Educational Needs and disability) status, which were deemed by the Department to be appropriate as these are seen as important factors in levels of pupil attainment.”

    But with such granular detail, anonymity would be lost and the DfE were relying only on “cast iron assurances” that the Telegraph would not use the data to identify individuals.

    2016: sharing children’s nationality data with the Home Office

    In a Written Question put by Caroline Lucas in Parliament in July 2016, the Minister for Education was asked whether the Home Office would access this newly collected nationality data. He stated: “the data will be collected solely for the Department’s internal use […]. There are currently no plans to share the data with other government departments unless we are legally required to do so.”

    But on the contrary: defenddigitalme’s subsequent requests would disclose that there was already a data sharing agreement to hand over data on nationality to the Home Office, for the purposes of immigration enforcement and to support the Hostile Environment policy.

    Jen says: “As part of our ongoing questions about the types of users of the school census data, we’d asked whether the Home Office or police were recipients of pupil data, because it wasn’t recorded in the public registry of data recipients.

    The Home Office had requested data about dependents of parents or guardians suspected of being in the country without leave to remain.

    “In August 2016, a FOI response did confirm that the Home Office was indeed accessing national pupil data; but to get to the full extent of the issue, we had to ask follow up questions. They had said that “since April 2012, the Home Office has submitted 20 requests for information to the National Pupil Database. Of these 18 were granted and 2 were refused as the NPD did not contain the information requested.

    “But the reply did not indicate how many people each request was for. And sure enough, when we asked for the detail, we found the requests were for hundreds of people at a time. Only later again, did we get told that each request could be for a maximum agreed 1,500 individuals, a policy set out in an agreement between the Departments which had started in 2015, in secret.

    “In the October afternoon of the very same day as the school census was collecting nationality data for the first time, this response confirmed that the Home Office had access to previously collected school census pupil data including name, home and school address: “The nature of all requests from the Police and the Home Office is to search for specific individuals in the National Pupil Database and to return the latest address and/or school information held where a match is found in the NPD.”

    The Home Office had requested data about dependents of parents or guardians suspected of being in the country without leave to remain.

    “In December 2016, after much intervention by MPs, including leaked letters, and FOI requests by both us and — we later learned —  by journalists at Schools Week, the government published the data sharing agreement that they had in place and that was being used”.

    It had been amended in October 2016 to remove the line on nationality data, and allowed the data to be matched with Home Office information. It had also been planned to deprioritise the children of those without leave to remain when allocating school places, shocking opposition MPs who described the plan variously as “a grubby little idea” and, simply, “disgusting”.

    Other campaigners joined the efforts as facts started to come into the public domain. A coalition of charities and child rights advocates formed under the umbrella organisation of Against Borders for Children, and Liberty would go on to support them in preparing a judicial review. ABC organised a successful public boycott, and parents and teachers supplied samples of forms that schools were using, some asking for only non-white British pupils to provide information.

    Overall, nationality was not returned for more than a quarter of pupils.

    2017: behind the policy making

    Through further requests defenddigitalme learned that the highly controversial decision to collect nationality and country of birth from children in schools — which came into effect from the autumn of 2016 — had been made in 2015. Furthermore, it had been signed off by a little known board which, crucially, had been kept in the dark.

    “I’d been told by attendees of the Star Chamber Scrutiny Board meeting that they had not been informed that the Home Office was already getting access to pupil data when they were asked to sign off the new nationality data collection, and they were not told that this new data would be passed on for Home Office purposes, either. That matters in my opinion, because law-making relies on accountability to ensure that decisions are just. It can’t be built on lies”, says Jen.

    The process of getting hold of the minutes from that significant meeting took a year.

    Jen says, “We went all the way through the appeals process, from the first Internal Review, then a complaint to the Information Commissioner. The ICO had issued a Decision Notice that meant the DfE should provide the information, but when they still refused the next step was the Information Rights First Tier Tribunal.

    “Two weeks before the court hearing due, the DfE eventually withdrew its appeal and provided some of the information in November 2017. Volunteers helped us with preparation of the paperwork, including folk from the Campaign for Freedom for Information. It was important that the ICO’s decision was respected.”

    2018: raised awareness

    In April last year, the Department confirmed that Nationality and Country of Birth must no longer be collected for school census purposes.

    However, Jen says, “Children’s data, collected for the purposes of education, are still being shared monthly for the purposes of the Hostile Environment. There’s a verbal promise that the nationality data won’t be passed over, but since the government’s recent introduction of the Immigration Bill 2018 and immigration exemption in the Data Protection Act, I have little trust in the department’s ability in the face of Home Office pressure, to be able to keep those promises.

    “The Bill includes a blanket sweeping away of privacy rights, highlighted by the 3 Million campaign, again thanks to FOI: Every EU citizen applying for Settled Status to accept its Privacy Policy that allows it to share all data with “public and private sector organisations in the UK and overseas.”

    “Disappointingly”, says Jen, “the government has decided instead of respecting human rights to data protection and privacy on this, to create new laws to work around them.

    The direction of travel for change to manage data for good, is the right one.

    “It’s wrong to misuse data collected for one purpose and on one legal basis entrusted for children’s education, for something punitive. We need children in education, it’s in their best interests and those of our wider society. Everyone needs to be able to trust the system.

    “That’s why we support Against Borders for Children’s call to delete the nationality data.

    “A positive overall outcome, however”, she continues, “is that in May 2018, the Department for Education put the sharing of all pupil level data on hold while they moved towards a new Secure Access model, based on the so-called ‘5-Safes’. The intention is distribute access to data with third parties, not distribute the data itself. The Department resumed data sharing in September but with new policies on data governance, working hard to make pupil data safer and meet ‘user needs’. The direction of travel for change to manage data for good, is the right one.”

    2019: Defenddigitalme continues to campaign

    Defenddigitalme has come a long way, but they won’t stop campaigning yet.

    People working with FOI is really important, even and perhaps especially when it doesn’t make the press, but provides better facts, knowledge, and understanding.

    Jen says, “Raw data is still distributed to third parties, and Subject Access, where I started, is still a real challenge.

    “The Department is handing out sensitive data, but can’t easily let you see all of it, or make corrections, or tell you which bodies for sure it was given to. Still, that shouldn’t put people off asking about their own or their child’s record, or opting out of the use of their individual record for over 14s and adult learners, and demand respect for their rights, and better policy and practice. The biggest change needed is that people should be told where their data goes, who uses it for how long, and why.

    “Access to how government functions and the freedom of the press to be able to reveal and report on that is vital to keep the checks and balances on systems we cannot see. We rely on a strong civil service to work in the best interests of the country and all its people and uphold human rights and the rule of law, regardless of the colour of government or their own beliefs. People working with FOI is really important, even and perhaps especially when it doesn’t make the press, but provides better facts, knowledge, and understanding.

    “FOI can bring about greater transparency and accountability of policy and decision making. It’s then up to all of us to decide how to use that information, and act on it if the public are being misled, if decisions are unjust, or policy and practice that are hidden will be harmful to the public, not only those deciding what the public interest is.

    “WhatDoTheyKnow is a really useful tool in that. Long may it flourish.”

  3. New (to us) media

    We’ve recently been trying out a few new ways of spreading the word about our Democracy websites.

    New to us, that is. Clearly, leaflets, videos and posters aren’t exactly groundbreaking concepts in the wider world, but as a digital organisation with limited budgets for marketing, we’ve not really explored them in any depth before.

    The motivation was something that’s one of our major drivers across lots of our work these days. Our own research has shown that our services are simply not reaching those sectors of society who might need them most: the least well-off, the less-educated, the young, and all sorts of minority demographics.

    Ever-conscious of this shortcoming, we’re doing what we can to address it on multiple fronts. These latest experiments in print and video represent an attempt to learn more about what might work, and as with everything we do at mySociety, we’re keeping a careful eye on the outcomes. If we see good results then there’s an argument for rolling out similar approaches more widely and to different communities.

    A video

    Recent funding from the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust helped us to try initiatives that would help publicise TheyWorkForYou and WriteToThem to younger people, like this animated video.

    A video will only work if we can get people watching it though, so please help us spread the word by sharing it, especially if you know people aged around 16-25 who might find it of interest!

    Leaflets and posters for schools

    We wanted to let schoolchildren know that TheyWorkForYou and WriteToThem can provide a channel to get things changed, ask for help or express their views.

    While we’d love to send leaflets and posters to every school in the country, that’d be rather expensive. So as a first step we identified 100 schools in the most deprived areas of the country (using the areas of deprivation index) and sent them a batch each. That way, we hope to reach young people who also might be most in need of empowerment.

    We also kept back a limited number of surplus posters and leaflets, so if you’re from a school and you’d like us to send you some, drop us a line (first come first served).

    TheyWorkforYou leaflets for schools

    MPs’ outreach

    It’s not quite in the same category, but we’ve also been in touch with every MP in the country, to let them know what we’re all about and how they (and their staff) can use our websites to best advantage.

    Now and again we hear MPs saying things that show they’ve misunderstood our aims, funding, principles or provenance — our recent blog post shows a couple of examples of this — and to be fair, we haven’t made much effort recently to talk to representatives directly. So this is an attempt to redress that, and invite any elected representative to get in touch if they’d like to ask us some questions.

    Outreach leaflet to MPs' offices

    We’ll be keeping an eye on whether our user demographics change at all in the near future, and you can be sure we’ll report back if we see anything notable.


    Top image: Thomas William