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White Paper suggests widening of data protection rights: Teachers question move to let pupils see school records

PUPILS may be given access to their school records under plans to bring increased openness into the public services.

New rules which would allow university entrants to see their references and school pupils and their parents to see what their teachers really thought of them seem certain to cause controversy.

Teachers' representatives say they must be allowed discretion, for example in cases where children's records reveal that they may have been abused. Campaigners for freedom of information reply that such exemptions could be used to prevent pupils from seeing biased or unfair reports of their behaviour.

The Department for Education must make a decision early next year on how it should react to the White Paper on Open Government, published in July. It has written to various educational organisations to canvass their opinions.

The White Paper suggests that the access rights which already apply to computer records under the 1984 Data Protection Act should be extended to paper records. This Act allows children to see computer records which apply to them as soon as they are old enough to understand them, but most school records are kept on paper.

Maurice Frankel, director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, said there were few circumstances in which records should be withheld from a child. If disclosure would put the pupil or any adult at risk, existing rules under the Data Protection Act would provide protection.

His campaign has gathered examples of unjustified comments which teachers have made about their pupils. In one case, a girl was described as 'a thief, a liar and sly', but after she moved to a new school a teacher said she seemed 'honest, truthful, frank and extremely helpful'.

Other comments on school reports included 'A high IQ figure . . . surprising in a child from a dull family' and 'A bit concerned over his honesty, though as yet no evidence'.

Mr Frankel said: 'The great worry is that personal prejudices about a student can be reflected in these things. Obviously if a parent came in with a hammer one wouldn't be expected to hand over the records, but it should be a question of whether anyone will be put at risk by the disclosure.'

Doug McAvoy, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said it was not always possible to disclose records.

'Pupils often have confidential conversations with teachers that they feel close to, and it may be that that information should be passed on, even though the child would not be happy to have it conveyed to his or her parents,' he said. 'Teachers must be able to take individual circumstances into account, and the guiding principle has to be the child's well- being.'

Tony Higgins, chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, said that opinions in higher education would be divided over whether students should see their references.

'There would be a real split, with some saying people should stand by their references and with others saying you cannot give a proper reference unless it is confidential.'