Ofsted to consider 'snooping' on pupils' and parents' Facebook pages to monitor school performance

Experts warn data inspectors could viably take from social media is “unreliable” and contradicts the government’s usual practice of ensuring inspections outcomes are evidence-based

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The Independent Online

Ofsted inspectors could start “snooping” on pupils and parents by monitoring their Facebook and Twitter pages to help determine which schools are in need of intervention.

Publishing its new “innovations and regulations plan” report, the schools watchdog said it was working with the Department for Education in a “data science project” to explore the possibility of monitoring social media to help pinpoint problems with individual schools’ performance.

The suggestion has raised cause for alarm among data protection campaigners, however, who argue there is already too much surveillance taking place within schools.

Experts also suggest the data inspectors could viably take from social media is “unreliable” and contradicts the government’s usual practice of ensuring inspections outcomes are evidence-based.

Ofsted has not yet provided any further details, but said it would only use information that was publicly available.

Responding to the proposals, Jen Persson, campaign coordinator for the data protection group Defend Digital Me, warned the move could destroy public and profession trust in the Government body.

“This idea is as daft as it is a dangerous overreach of their function scope and powers,” she said.

Mark Orchison, managing director of education technology specialist firm 9ine Consulting, told Schools Week the watchdog could make use of “Google data studio”, a portal that can track an individual organisation or school’s traffic and popularity on social media.

Ofsted could configure the platform to create a timeline for a specific school showing “who is talking about the school on Facebook and Twitter, to see who is mentioning it and see what a community’s realtime perception is before they go to the school,” he added.

Joshua Perry, director of Assembly, a schools data platform created by Ark, added it would also be possible for Ofsted to “explore issues such as parental engagement by examining the volume and nature of parent-school engagements” online.

But he added the dataset reliability from social media was not clear.

Ms Persson said by allowing Ofsted to judge schools and individuals on their social media use, the Government would open up a host of potential data protection issues going forward.

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“Social media are personal data shared in private time, put into the public domain, but not intended for surveillance,” she said. “Parents share criticisms and comment in context that is lost to strangers. People post things thinking that it will be seen by their circles of friends or people engaged in their conversation.

“If Ofsted starts tracking and interrogating parents and pupils' personal comments on social media, where would they stop? Will the police knock on doors of families posting holiday photos in term time? Will they start searching for teachers tweeting on sick days? Will whistleblowers and critics be silenced by the chilling effect of surveillance?

“Technology can support teachers, pupils and parents but their data must be used with consent, with transparency and oversight, not State snooping in secret.”

The debate follows on from wider concerns raised over pupil data protection issues in schools within the past few months.

Figures obtained by civil liberties group Big Brother Watch last year found at least 1,000 secondary schools in England and Wales to be using “spy software” to monitor pupils’ internet activity and web history

Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: “Social media is a place where people go to express their frustrations, not provide measured constructive feedback.

“It is not audited or verified and is widely known to contain unsubstantiated gossip or downright falsehood. For a government agency to use it as data would call into question its commitment to evidence-based practice."

An Ofsted Spokesperson said: "Like any regulator, we are always looking at how we can improve our monitoring of standards in schools and to identify where there may be concerns about children’s safety or the quality of education they are receiving.

"It’s important to say that we do not currently collate information from social media channels. Any work that we may do in this area in the future would of course be confined to open forums and would be for the sole purpose of helping decide whether to bring forward an inspection in certain instances."