Q&A: Is the database of primary pupils a crucial planning tool or a data grab?

The Department of Education wants data on children – and to hold on to it until they are 30


What is the primary online database (Pod)?

The Department of Education wants to collect a full profile of all children in education and store that data until they turn 30. The database will have the child’s PPS number, name, address, mother’s maiden name, ethnicity and cultural background, religion, language spoken at home, special needs, medical conditions, psychological reports and progression through the education system. Teachers or principals can also enter other information about an individual child under “notes”.

Why do they want this?

The department says this data can be used for planning, statistical analysis and tracking a child’s progress through the system, as well as tracking long-term success of education policy. It could help to ensure children don’t drop out after primary school or be useful in monitoring the progress of students from disadvantaged backgrounds. There has been a similar database for second- level students for more than 20 years; it doesn’t require the same level of data but information about it is not readily available.

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What other uses could the Pod have?

Teacher unions and school principals say it could ease the administrative burden on schools by replacing the national school annual census. It could also facilitate information transfer between primary and post-primary. Not all agree, with one teacher on education blog Anseo.net pointing out that each entry will take three to four minutes, a significant burden on a school with 200 or so pupils.

Who can access the data?

The department says fewer than 15 of its staff have access. Certain people in schools will have access, as will those who provide technical support. For administrative and resource purposes it may also be shared with up to five public bodies, including the Child and Family Support Agency and the Department of Social Protection. The department may extend the list of agencies who have access, although there are no plans to do so.

Do I have to give my child’s information?

From 2016, teacher allocations and school grants will be based on Pod numbers in schools. In a letter to a parent, which we’ve seen, the department says: “If you do not consent to your child’s data being entered on Pod, then you should inform your school in writing. However, from 2016-2017 this may have funding and teacher allocation implications for your school going forward.” Another parent who complained was told that “if a pupil’s record is not on Pod, then the school will not receive payment in relation to that pupil.” The department has independently confirmed this advice to us.

Is anyone objecting?

There's growing opposition from individual parents and others . Dermot Casey, former chief technology officer at Storyful news agency and currently with technology firm Near Future, has raised concerns, as has data protection commissioner Helen Dixon. She says there is "an inadequate explanation of why they need [the data] and why they need to hold it for [30 years]". It's unclear whether the department has the authority to demand this data in the first place. Dixon has called for clarity on who else data can be shared with.

What will they do if I don’t give my child’s data?

It looks like they’ll take it anyway. The department has advised that schools should provide all the information they have, irrespective of whether they get approval or not. The department says it intends to “monitor the level of non-response to these questions”. But why would anyone object to a database that could be used to improve education? It’s not that straightforward. Opponents are concerned it could be used for nefarious purposes: that if it is leaked or misused it could compromise the security of young people, providing a treasure trove for blackmailers or identity thieves or, potentially, allow employers to use childhood psychological profiles against people as adults. The Ombudsman for Children has records of complaints by parents against schools, and in some instances the children concerned have moved school for a fresh start; the proposed database means their previous school record is available for new teachers to see.

Just make sure it’s a secure and private system then, and let’s go home.

The department has a system for schools to provide the data offline and then encrypt it, using the same system whistleblower Edward Snowden used to communicate with journalists. Computer experts say the system is difficult to use. Schools got detailed instructions on how to encrypt data but – and this is where it gets a bit messy – the school also holds unencrypted data on its own computers. If they are stolen or hacked, and the school hasn't secured the data, it could compromise your child's security.