SEA publication is a privacy issue

Above: Photo by StockyImages/DepositPhotos.

I am bemused that in the age we live in with the annual stories and articles that we read regarding the Secondary Entrance Assessment (SEA) exam and the stress that students and parents go through, that we are still debating whether or not we should publish the results in the newspapers.

I mean really, this needs to be debated. Today I saw an article in a daily publication that mentioned a Denominational Board member threatening to take Judicial Review Action if the Ministry of Education (MoE) fails to publish the results, and the MoE stating that it is seeking the advice of the Attorney General.  You really can’t make this stuff up.

Clearly it is a matter which merits discussion, but is it one that demands the intervention of the AG?

From my research, I have seen nothing in the Education Act to regulate the SEA, nor anything to legislate that the results ought to be published. So the decision to publish the results in the newspapers is a policy decision of the MoE.

Yet through all the back and forth I have heard being discussed there is one issue that has remained silent. The very relevant element of privacy and the expectation that it will be respected.

Under Part I of our Data Protection Act (DPA), as proclaimed, Personal Information is defined as information relating to the education history of an individual and  any identifying number, symbol or other particular designed to identify the individual.

This definition is also found in our Freedom of Information Act. Additionally Section 6 of our DPA (also proclaimed)  outlines the General Privacy Principles which are applicable to all persons who handle, store or process personal information belonging to another person.

Interestingly among those are (c)  knowledge and consent of the individual are required for the collection, use or disclosure of personal information; and (d)  collection of personal information shall be legally undertaken and be limited to what is necessary in accordance with the purpose identified by the organisation.

It can therefore be argued that the name of the student, their student number and the school which they are placed in can be deemed Personal Information.  Additionally in a recent case of Simon, Roger; Simon, Audra v The Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Education, Justice Boodoosingh noted that “when a student writes the examination on a script it seems to me that a strong case can be made as to at least joint ownership of the written examination script by the student.”

“I see no reason in principle why a child who writes a public examination, which is mandatory for the child to be placed in a secondary school, in a competitive process…should not be allowed to view a copy of his or her paper, through their parent. It is the student’s script.”

Additionally in Article 16 of the Rights of a Child, (A ratified convention to which we are a signatory) notes “Children have a right to privacy. The law should protect them from attacks against their way of life, their good name, their families and their homes”.

Consider their “Good Name”. How is the publication of the results in the newspaper helping their Good Name or upholding the spirit of that tenet of the United Nations’ policy on children?

Finally with all the arguments between the MoE, Denomination Boards, the AG, has anyone thought to ask the children what they think about this?

Doesn’t their opinion matter, or do we still live in the age of children who are best seen and not heard?

It is their personal information that is being made public for all the world to see. From a legal perspective what can be upheld as “reasonable” in publishing the information?

Whose public interest does it serve?

If students or parents feel there was malice in the process they can still challenge the MoE. So really what purpose does it serve beyond massaging the ego of the percentage of students (and their parents )who have done well?.

My view on this topic is simple.

The SEA results can be deemed to be personal information of the child, and publication of the results can cause unintentional stress and shame on some students and parents.

In this day and age, the practice seems like an anachronistic policy from our colonial era and I see no reason why these results should be published at all.

Privacy is not being looked at with a different lens, given the advancement in technology and the increasing use of social media and the rapid growth of Internet of Things (IoT) devices. We owe it to our children to always have their best interests at heart.

Rishi Maharaj

Mr. Maharaj is the Executive Director of the EquiGov Institute, a boutique consulting firm specialising in Data Protection, Governance, Transparency and Monitoring and Evaluation. He has fourteen years of experience working in the public sector of Trinidad and Tobago and Civil Society organisations. 

From 2005 to 2012 he was the Senior Officer in charge of administrating the Freedom of Information Act as well as providing technical advice in the passage of the Data Protection Act in 2011. Mr. Maharaj is a certified member of the Canadian Institute of Access and Privacy Professionals and the International Association of Privacy Professionals.