Minister says data watchdog ‘fully satisfied’ with pupil database plan

Jan O’Sullivan insists primary school data will only be accessed by a small number of people

Minister for Education Jan O’Sullivan has insisted the Data Protection Commissioner is satisfied with the plan for the primary database .Photograph: Aidan Crawley/The Irish Times

Minister for Education Jan O’Sullivan has insisted the Data Protection Commissioner is satisfied with the plan for the primary database .Photograph: Aidan Crawley/The Irish Times

 

The Data Protection Commissioner is fully satisfied with plans for a new primary school online database, which requires schools to hand over PPS numbers for all their pupils, Minister for Education Jan O’Sullivan said.

The project has come in for criticism over proposals to hold the information from the time a child enters school until they turn 30. It will also hold details of children’s ethnicity and religion.

Other State agencies will also be given access to some of the information held by the Department of Education in the primary school database.

Parents have been told they will be unable to withhold their children’s PPS numbers from the database as the information will be obtained from the Department of Social Protection instead.

Speaking in Limerick on Friday, Ms O’Sullivan moved to allay concerns over how the department will hold and share the personal data, insisting only a small number of people would have access to it.

“Guidance has been taken from the Data Commissioner and that office is satisfied with what we are doing and they have been consulted all the way along the line,” Ms O’Sullivan said.

“It will be a very narrow range of people who will have access to this data and it will be only for legitimate purpose so I would reassure people that this is not for any bad purpose. This is about ensuring that all children get the maximum opportunities in education.”

The Minister said the new database would also prove crucial in tracking the small number of students who “disappear” from the educational system in the transition from primary to post-primary education.

When asked why it was necessary to hold the information for 30 years, Ms O’Sullivan replied:

“I have gone back and asked for the reasons why it’s up to the 30th birthday and I am told it is in order to ensure that we have full maximum data that we need.”

“I did say I would examine it but it looks to me that up to the 30th birthday is probably appropriate and it satisfies the Data Commissioner as well which is obviously very important,” she added.

The commissioner’s office has confirmed it was consulted in late 2013 on the plan for the database.

It was satisfied that the Department of Education had presented “a legitimate and proportionate purpose for requesting to be provided with the data it is seeking”.

School principals were also asked late last year to fill in a ‘social context’ survey about pupils, with information about their family backgrounds and circumstances. That questionnaire asked for details of medical card holders, whether pupils live in social housing and information on those with an unemployed head of household.

The Irish Primary Principals Network said last October that it had never encountered such a level of comment and anger over having to ask such questions, especially in medium and small schools.

Meanwhile, Ms O’Sullivan again urged teachers not to go ahead with their planned strike action next week which she said would not serve any purpose.

More than 730 secondary schools are due to close on Thursday, January 22nd in the second day of strike action over plans to reform the junior cycle.

“It’s obviously going to cause huge inconvenience to parents in particular, but also to staff and students as well and to schools.”

“I hope it won’t go ahead but the indications I got from my meetings with the teaching unions is that it will probably go ahead.”

Ms O’Sullivan said she had asked Paraic Travers, who chaired Wednesday’s meetings with unions, to remain in contact with both sides in case there is any way of avoiding the strike.

She made her comments at the official launch of Limerick’s newest secondary school.

Thomond Community College will opens its doors in September 2016 following the amalgamation of St Nessan’s Community College and Salesian’s Secondary School.