The questions they are asking our children

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by Kenneth Roy

Among its many curiosities, the national entitlement card for young people in Scotland has succeeded in turning language on its head. In the lexicon of official Scotland, the word ‘voluntary’ no longer means what it says. It now means ‘compulsory’ or ‘compulsory in effect’.

When we first looked at this card for 12 to 25 year olds, we claimed that a national ID scheme was being introduced at the school gate. Our basis for this claim was the new policy of Breadalbane Academy in Aberfeldy, and other schools in Perth and Kinross, to make the production of the card obligatory for pupils wishing to enter the school building. We said – it seemed a fair enough deduction – that, in order to gain access to their own education, pupils were being required to hold one of these cards whether they liked it or not. If this is not ‘compulsory’, what is?

The card’s promoters, the Young Scot charity, responded to the Scottish Review with a long letter complaining that we had misrepresented the position. Significantly, however, the letter failed to address the specific example of Perth and Kinross.

Quite unabashed, Young Scot maintains on its website that ‘this is not the start of an ID scheme. It’s completely voluntary and open to you whether you sign up or not’. Completely voluntary? Hold that thought. The Scottish Government, the principal sponsors of the scheme, and the Scottish local authorities who administer it in their areas, peddle the same line. Yet it is not difficult to refute these official assurances by further example and to show that it is not the Scottish Review which is misrepresenting the position.


It is true that this information is mostly fairly basic stuff. But there is the ever-present danger of function creep.


A reader has sent us an extract from the prospectus of Falkirk High School in which it is stated that every pupil – repeat, every pupil – is issued with the card at primary school. The bold italics are ours:

They [the pupils] must keep this [card] throughout their time at Falkirk High School. Pupils entitled to a free school meal will have their card credited with the appropriate sum for their meal. Other pupils must ‘charge up’ their card at one of the coin machines located around the school. No cash is accepted in the cafeteria. Pupils will not be served if they do not have enough credit on their card.

Falkirk is not part of Perth and Kinross, so now we have evidence of at least two local authorities where the so-called voluntary card is, on any reasonable interpretation of the word, compulsory. Readers have alerted us to other local authorities, including Edinburgh and the Borders, in which similar policies apply; we suspect that the practice is fairly widespread, if not yet universal. Yet the illusion persists – and is communicated to potential holders of the card – that ‘it’s completely voluntary and open to you whether you sign up or not’. Try buying a school lunch in Falkirk without one.

In previous articles on this subject, we have pointed out that most of the young Scots who hold this card (380,000 at the latest count), who have been enticed by offers of store and public transport discounts, have agreed to the sharing of information about themselves – the information contained in the application form – among un-named ‘partners’ in the scheme. It is true that this information is mostly fairly basic stuff. But there is the ever-present danger of function creep.

At least one local authority has added a supplementary questionnaire in which applicants for the card are asked if they have committed a crime. Naturally this is for the purposes of ‘a survey’, completing the questionnaire is ‘optional’, and respondents are promised that the results will be ‘de-personalised’. Why are children as young as 12 being asked such questions; who handles the data; and where does the information go?


‘Obviously the children’s details are also on that database, now held by a business, without even asking the parents if this is what they want’.


Consider too the sudden enthusiasm for a cashless society in a growing number of Scottish schools – the unwillingness to accept money in the cafeteria. If it is part of the responsibility of educators to prepare young people for life ‘in the real world’, it may be time for schools to be reminded that, in the real world, cash is still a vital commodity, particularly in the cheap caffs and restaurants that their pupils are likely to frequent. If, however, every meal a pupil consumes is now recorded and stored as a piece of information in the card’s memory, that would make the cashless society quite attractive to the missionaries of data-sharing: not as a good thing in itself but as another useful step in the long road to a national profile for every citizen.

How secure is all this information? The state has a poor record of keeping the facts about its citizens confidential, and there is no reason to believe that the colossal amount of information now being gathered about Scotland’s young people will be any safer, any less vulnerable, than other state databases have proved to be.

Within weeks of the pupil ID scheme being introduced at Breadalbane Academy, Skills Development Scotland had acquired the emergency contact names for every S4 child and had used them to promote an event in Perth. As one parent told Comment (an online newsletter in Perthshire): ‘Obviously the children’s details are also on that database, now held by a business, without even asking the parents if this is what they want’.

Here is a final sobering thought. Children aged 13 or over do not require parental authority to apply for a national entitlement card. The cards are being actively promoted at stalls in town centres and in the schools themselves. Roll up, roll up, kids, and give us your details.

This article was reproduced with the kind permission of Kenneth Roy.
Read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review.