MoD sought sensitive children’s data for possible recruitment drive

An armed police officer patrols outside the Ministry of Defence in London. (Reuters/Luke MacGregor)
The UK Ministry of Defense (MoD) has been blocked from accessing highly sensitive data on school students, including how rich their parents are and their academic record, which they sought to better inform them of military career opportunities.

The MoD made a request to the National Pupil Database (NPD) last year, according to the magazine Schools Week.

A spokesman for the MoD insisted to Schools Week that the request was an “error” made by someone “outside the Army’s recruitment branch.”

However, Forces Watch, a campaign group that scrutinizes recruitment in the military, said the fact that the request had been denied showed “how inappropriate the MoD’s use of the data was.”

The information the MoD was trying to get hold of is not easy to access; it is labeled Tier 1 and includes school children’s most personal details.

As well as ethnicity and address, the database includes descriptions of pupils’ academic records and special educational needs, as well as how often they were absent from school and if they receive free school meals, an indication of how wealthy their parents are.

Applying to the NPD for such information is a complex and time consuming process. An applicant must answer 20 security questions and enter encryption details into their computer. For Tier 1 data, applicants must say exactly why they need this information and why they are unable to use less sensitive information.

A final decision on whether information will be released is made by senior Department of Education (DfE) staff on the Data Management Advisory Panel.

The news that the MoD had made a request surfaced after all NPD requests were released under transparency laws. Since 2012, only 9 out 460 requests have been refused.

“We only disclose information from the NPD for the purpose of conducting research and analysis that will promote the education or well-being of children in England,” A DfE spokesperson said.

While the MoD said that the request was an “error,” the release from the NPD listed the reason for their request.

[The request was] “To determine if we can use targeted messaging to better inform young people of the career opportunities open to them in the Army (Regular and Reserve) so that their decisions about seeking a full or part time job are better informed,” according to the transparency release.

However an MoD spokesperson insisted that the request was not in line with army’s recruitment policy.

“We can confirm that a request was made in error to the DfE for access to elements of the NPD by an individual who worked outside the Army’s recruitment branch. This is not in line with Army policy and the request has been halted,” they said.

However, Owen Everett from Forces Watch said that the army is struggling to recruit new soldiers.

“That the MoD have now attempted to obtain this vast database of school students’ personal data in an attempt to improve Army recruitment, at a time when Army recruitment continues to be struggling, and when the armed forces policy of recruiting 16 and 17 year-olds is shortly to be challenged in a judicial review, is no coincidence,” he said.

Everrett also pointed out that many teenagers from poorer backgrounds and less wealthy areas of the country end up joining the army because they have no other prospects of full time employment and are, thus, particularly overrepresented in the infantry. In Afghanistan infantry soldiers had a far greater risk of being killed and injured in action.