Secret police system in Bristol schools monitoring and profiling children and families

Posted: 28th September 2023

Bristol schools using secret database called ‘Think Family Education’ to monitor and profile schoolchildren

  • More than 100 Bristol primary and secondary schools are using a secret database called the ‘Think Family Education application’ to monitor and profile schoolchildren as young as four, as well as their families.
  • The Think Family Education application is used in secret, without the consent or knowledge of children, young people or parents.
  • The database, labelled “intrusive monitoring” by a local education campaign group, shares details of student and family contact with police, child protection, and welfare services, including access housing and benefits.
  • The system sends schools automated police alerts of young people profiled as ‘at risk’ of criminal activity, facilitating “digital police in schools”.
  • The system has raised concerns amongst local campaigners, including No More Exclusions Bristol, for criminalising and targeting young people from racialised and working-class backgrounds.

‘Think Family Education’

Bristol schools are using a secret police and council database to monitor schoolchildren and families’ contact with police, share details of their finances and access to welfare, as well as using ‘predictive’ alerts from police about which schoolchildren are ‘at risk’ of criminality, Fair Trials has uncovered.

The ‘Think Family Education application’, created by Bristol City Council and Avon and Somerset Police, is being actively used by 107 schools in Bristol, including primary and secondary schools, according to figures from September 2023, while almost 200 Bristol “education settings” have been given access to it.

Schools using the Think Family Education application receive police alerts about schoolchildren and family members’ contact with police, anti-social behaviour and domestic violence ‘incidents’, and also receive automatically generated algorithmic ‘predictions’ from police, which label certain schoolchildren as ‘at risk’ of future criminality.

The system also gives schools access to sensitive personal details about children and their families’ financial situations and access to public services and welfare such as housing and unemployment, homeless prevention, and child protection, as well as details of social workers involved. Data on schoolchildren includes whether they speak English as an additional language, and how many schools they have attended.

Bristol City Council requires schools to sign a ‘TFE Service User Charter’ to use the system, which requires they keep it “on a limited need to know basis”. School safeguarding leads have also told Fair Trials that they keep the system secret from children and their families.

Fair Trials has been told of intentions to expand the system to schools in other local authorities beyond Bristol, including Somerset, North Somerset, and South Gloucestershire councils.

Automated information-sharing between police and schools

The system automatically sends ‘crime incidents’ alerts – police reports about schoolchildren from Avon & Somerset Police and Youth Offending Teams – to school safeguarding leads, as well as ‘police familial involvement’: whether a parent or sibling at the school has been in contact with the police. The system also provides information on other ‘incidents’ including ‘anti-social behaviour’ and ‘domestic’ incidents.

Many schools in Bristol already have an extremely close working relationship with police, with one Bristol secondary school describing daily email communication with police officers, often about individual students, to Fair Trials.

Think Family Education application also shares algorithmically generated alerts from Avon & Somerset Police to ‘predict’ the risk of ‘criminality’ and ‘vulnerability’ of schoolchildren, and automatically send these alerts to schools using it.

The system’s profiling algorithms are created using police and criminal justice data from Avon & Somerset Police, that reflect the structural biases in society – in the UK, for example, Black people are criminalised disproportionately more than white people on any metric, including stop and search, arrest, prosecution, imprisonment and more.

Schools secretly accessing sensitive personal details about schoolchildren and families’

The Think Family Education application is being used in both primary and secondary schools in Bristol, meaning that it may be monitoring and profiling children as young as four. Safeguarding teachers at a Bristol secondary school spoken to by Fair Trials said the database plays an important role in daily work: “that’s kind of the habit really – opening it up at the beginning of the day.”

The Think Family Education application contains a large amount of personal and sensitive information about schoolchildren and their families. One example report seen by Fair Trials included: “family identified to be at risk of an emerging financial issue, which could be due to council tax arrears, rent arrears, or risk identified by housing officers.” Another report included: “stepfather in receipt of out of work benefits.”

The system is used covertly by specified school safeguarding teachers without the knowledge of schoolchildren or their families. Safeguarding teachers at the Bristol secondary school reported checking in with schoolchildren and families about incidents they know happened via details shared on the Think Family Education application, without the knowledge of those children or their families:

The teachers won’t know about it, won’t have to know about it, and parents will have no kind of sight of it at all… [T]hey might be concerned that we have access to this information.

Griff Ferris, Senior Legal and Policy Officer at Fair Trials said:

“It is unbelievable that this needs to be said, but schoolchildren should not be monitored, profiled and criminalised by secretive police databases in schools. Surveillance is not safeguarding. Profiling children as criminals is not safeguarding. There is no safety in a system that covertly facilitates digital police in schools.

“Systems like this merely uphold already existing discrimination against children and families from minoritised ethnic and more deprived backgrounds, and reinforce the school to prison pipeline.

“This system is expanding the net of surveillance and criminalisation into our schools, and will lead to Bristol schoolchildren being targeted by police and drawn into the criminal justice system, while also facing suspicion, punishment and exclusion at school. It should be shut down immediately.”

A spokesperson from No More Exclusions Bristol said:

“As we have seen with predictive policing, technologies that gather and use information in the name of ‘public safety’ overwhelmingly reproduce racialised ideas of problematic behaviour. Too often solutions to these ‘problems’ are punitive and, therefore, the covert use of intrusive monitoring is yet another indicator that, in this city, control is valued above education.”

Liz Fekete, Director of the Institute of Race Relations, said:

“We thought we had seen it all with the racially discriminatory Gangs Matrix, but these disturbing revelations coming out of Bristol are if anything worse, with children as young as four targeted for ‘intrusive monitoring’ and algorithmic predictive policing around the risk of future criminality. The Think Family Education App expressly collates information on children who speak English as an additional language. The unthinking ease with which schools are colluding with the App’s racialised logic is more than an invasion of privacy – it is an indictment of a biased and reckless multi-agency safeguarding approach that stigmatises whole families and leaves even primary school children vulnerable to police surveillance and intelligence gathering.  It’s frankly astounding that council leaders could think that such an app has any role to play in education settings. This is nothing less than institutional racism in action.”

A spokesperson at Bristol City Council said:

“Just under 200 education settings in Bristol have the opportunity to access the Think Family Education app to receive appropriate information regarding vulnerable children under that education setting’s care. Bristol City Council has made itself available to other local authorities to learn from should they choose to adopt a similar approach within their own authority area.”

Source: Secret police system in Bristol schools monitoring and profiling children and families – Fair Trials

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