Max Madden – 1978 Speech on Parental Inspection of School Records

Below is the text of the speech made by Max Madden, the then Labour MP for Sowerby, in the House of Commons on 17 July 1978.

Despite the hour, I should like to draw attention to the need to give all parents the right to inspect information about their children which is kept by most schools. The information, normally recorded on a strictly confidential basis, can be a most important influence in a child’s progress from primary to secondary school, moving between schools and securing further and higher education or employment.

Where, the magazine of the Advisory Centre for Education, surveyed 93 local education authorities in 1975. It found that all the authorities kept records. However, only two guaranteed that parents could see them and 24 left this to the discretion of head teachers. The rest did not offer parents any rights to inspect their children’s files.
If there is a case for some information to be kept, it follows that access to the information must be allowed for parents and older children. Such a right is a basic freedom. It would also be an important and necessary safeguard against the recording of wrong or wholly irrelevant information, which can often follow a child for years, creating all kinds of needless problems and anxieties.

The Where survey revealed the case of a boy who had once been accused of menacing and taking money from a younger boy. It was later found that the boy was entirely innocent. His father sought—and obtained—the assurance of the head teacher that any reference to the incident would not appear on the boy’s record. However, later, the innocent boy and his brother moved to a new school. The brother was greatly upset when a teacher, having asked his name, said “Oh, you’re the brother of the thief.” The boy’s record—and its mistakes—had moved with him.

Another example concerns an older girl with a pleasant, open nature, who soon found a job in a company branch office after leaving school at 16. A fortnight later the manager said that head office ​ was questioning her appointment. After receiving her report, it said that she ought never to have been recruited, and she was put on three months’ probation.

All the girl could assume was that the cause of the difficulty was that her report referred to a bad patch that she had experienced at school when she was 11, five years earlier.

One record card, seen by the National Council for Civil Liberties, followed a child through a number of years and included the following remarks:

“Mother says she’s nervous and highly strung. I think this could be inherited from mother. A bit concerned over S’s honesty—though as yet have no evidence”

and later

“Not convinced she always tells the complete truth: mum came round one evening and made one or two remarks that were not fully accurate”.

As the NCCL said in its book, “Privacy: the Information Gatherers”

“Such pseudo-psychological comments”

—is S supposed to have inherited her mother’s nervousness, or merely imitated it?—

“or the extraordinary assumption that a child should be blamed for a mother’s inaccuracies should never be allowed to remain unchallenged in a permanent record”.

Other teachers have been asked to indicate, on a scale of 1 to 10, how a child rates on a series of attributes, including honesty, leadership, truthfulness and sycophancy. Records normally start in primary school, although one authority in the Midlands introduced into selected infant schools a recording system involving more than 130 questions. Standard record cards kept by Calderdale local education authority, on junior children in my constituency, have sections headed: “Relevant Home Conditions”, “Parental Attitude” and “Personality Attributes”.

Marie Macey, lecturer in education at Bradford University, has tried, with considerable difficulty, to survey records kept by education authorities responsible for 10 million children. Writing in Where in May she mentions one county recording system which enabled some children, before the age of 5, to be officially labelled

“unreliable and a source of difficulties”.

She commented

“LEAs have good reasons for denying even the existence of school cards; they have good ​ reasons for lying about their content and for refusing to supply sample cards to researchers. And given that the records referred to were blank ones, they have even better reasons for refusing parental access to a child’s filled-in card! What they have neither reason nor justification for is the unthinking perpetuation of such a system. It is difficult to find any education rationale for much of the information required; it is even more difficult to excuse the recording of such information on social or ‘human’ grounds, since its potential for harm is self-evident”.

Her article concluded that

“the issue of secrecy in school record-keeping is no trivial one, but has, in fact, far reaching implications and consequences for the individual, the family, school and society. The organisation of the British education system is such that no one appears to be ‘accountable’ to the public, so that the potential for misuse or abuse is inbuilt, just as trust and rights are excluded. It is not a complete exaggeration, either, to suggest that fear is a major component of such a system. Heads tend to refer to area/district officers whenever any ‘problems’ arise; similarly, local officers refer to the central area office at such times; teachers do not tell parents what is going on in schools for fear of personal and professional repercussions; parents refrain from asking too many ‘awkward’ questions either of schools or LEAs because they are afraid of adverse effects on their children. Everyone seems to live in fear of ‘the system’, yet quite who or what makes up this system seems to be a matter of considerable mystery.”

I am pleased that the Department, in circular 14/77, asked LEAs to supply information, by 30th June, about record keeping, and that the Green Paper “Education in Schools” stressed the need for full regard to be paid to the rights of parents, teachers and pupils to know what material is recorded.

However, many, including the organisations that I have mentioned and the Campaign Against School Spying, believe that a statutory right of access for parents is necessary. It would ensure a national right of access for parents to standard records and any other material which may be seen—and may influence—a third party and which may convey incorrect or irrelevant information about a child.

The surveys to which I have referred are graphic and stark evidence of the abuse of the present system. I hope that the Minister will be able to underline the concern of her Department about this matter and to say that a clause will be inserted in an early education Bill to give parents a statutory right of access to this information. But before then there needs to be clear agreement among all ​ those responsible for education and the well-being of children about the information that is recorded. If the statutory right of inspection followed as a check against abuse and a safeguard against inaccurate and irrelevant information being recorded, it would be a useful reform. It would be widely welcomed by all parents, by many teachers who are concerned about the present situation and by a large number of children, particularly older children. I hope that the Minister will at least be able to express sympathy with such a reform even if she cannot announce firm action tonight.