National Data Strategy fails to learn the lessons from Covid

Earlier this month, 5Rights submitted its response to the UK National Data Strategy consultation. You can read more about our submission here, but one of the more striking aspects of the strategy was the failure to heed the lessons provided by Covid’s impact on children’s education, from the problems around exam grades to home learning.

The use of automated decision-making in grading GCSE and A-level results in the summer of 2020 introduced algorithmic bias into the examination process with catastrophic consequences for the government, education sector and, most significantly, for children. The hasty implementation of an automated decision-making system (and failure to take advice from the exams regulator) resulted in widespread ‘downgrading’, particularly of those who were at the margin of grades. The algorithm determined results using data from schools’ past performances which  had a disproportionately negative effect on state school students. .

The government’s policy focus on grade inflation made it blind to the needs of students looking for a true reflection of their individual attainment.  If we are to benefit from government use of data-driven technology, greater transparency is needed on how and to what purpose data is used and algorithms are built, as well as careful implementation, clear accountability and robust governance processes. This hasn’t proven to be the case so far.

There were also many problems arising from remote learning during the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic, which would have been helped with a more robust data strategy. Many disadvantaged children were left behind in the shift to remote learning, because of insufficient access to devices, connectivity  and to online learning resources. Swifter action to ensure all children had access to resources would have saved anxiety for many families, teachers and students and avoided backwards steps in learning. While those on the frontline struggled with access, it emerged that many of the systems used to deliver remote learning had insufficient protections in place to eliminate risks and harms to young people..

While the government rushed through emergency legislation under the Coronavirus Act 2020 to mandate remote learning, it failed to introduce emergency protections, leaving children and teachers exposed to risk. A significant number of remote learning platforms offered no explicit protections for children’s data and their right to privacy, and shared data with third-parties for commercial purposes. Poor security settings also left teachers struggling with inappropriate, and sometimes illegal material entering the remote classroom. Remote and online learning is likely to be a growth area for the foreseeable future. It provides a clear example of why greater consideration must be given to security and privacy is a prerequisite for a successful and equitable data strategy.

Digital and data literacy are an important part of supporting children to understand the consequences of data sharing, but the responsibility for mitigating harm must not be placed on those most likely to experience it. It is inappropriate to educate young people to use a world which systematically asks them to act beyond their maturity and puts them at risk, and it is unreasonable to transfer responsibility for staying safe to children who are forced to deal with a complex system where risks are created by design, not only by user behaviour.

There are clear benefits to be realised from better use of data in the delivery of public services, particularly in education settings, but the government must be transparent about how it uses data and makes decisions using automated processes. It must consult and test with experts before employing automated decision-making processes, and invite public scrutiny through the publication of the advice they have received, alongside the source code or statistical models they propose to use.

The government’s response to the consultation, which will be published in early 2021, is to be based on careful consideration of all submitted responses, including that of 5Rights. Subject to the consultation’s findings, further consultation may be necessary on the details of any potential changes to current framework strategy.

You can read the full consultation here.