John Phillips
John Phillips June 8, 2021 Guardianship

Guardianship and Education

This article is part of a series that we’re writing on how we might best implement a digital model for Guardianship, and what that might mean in our personal and professional lives.

The articles are based on the work we (Jo Spencer and John Phillips) performed as co-chairs of the Sovrin Foundation Guardianship Working Group and our work with the Technical Stream of that Working Group.

The previous articles in this series so far are:

This article considers the role of guardianship in education, specifically the years when students are considered to be children and dependent on an adult as their guardian. We discuss how Verifiable Credentials and Decentralized Identifiers – the building blocks of Self-Sovereign Identity (SSI) based solutions – can be used to document and prove guardianship arrangements in an education context, how that can augment current physical processes and enable trusted, digital mechanisms that benefit the education provider, their students and the guardians of their students.

[Note that this article will use the term “guardian” as a generalisation of parent, carer, and other legally recognised forms of relationship responsibility to children, and we will typically use the terms “student” or “dependent” for the child in this relationship.]

Why this is important….to Education
  • A core focus for Education systems is identifying the student and tracking their educational progress through their schooling.
  • Parents, guardians and carers perform an essential role in providing a supportive and safe environment for students during schooling.
  • Having an up-to-date understanding of these relationships, and the associated rights and duties, is essential for schools to make the right decisions for the students.
  • There is currently little or no support provided to schools by existing education systems to recgonise and prove these relationships online.
What we need Education providers to do
  • Design a framework that includes verification or guardianship. We need to be able to recognise and verify the relationship(s) between the student and their guardian(s). This includes operation, governance and legal issues as well as technology.
  • Build out systems that support these designs. Using open-standards and open-source software where possible, build the identified design, learn from its use, and improve.
How Education providers can do it
  • Use the Guardianship framework based on the W3C Verifiable Credentials data model and Decentralised Identifiers standards.

Guardianship in Education: Physical Effort C+; Digital Effort E-

Most of the world has long considered education to be a fundamental human right. Article 26 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights starts with the sentence “Everyone has the right to education.”

The rights and duties of parents and guardians to the children in their care are considered in Article 5 of The Convention on the Rights of the Child, which states:

States Parties shall respect the responsibilities, rights and duties of parents or, where applicable, the members of the extended family or community as provided for by local custom, legal guardians or other persons legally responsible for the child, to provide, in a manner consistent with the evolving capacities of the child, appropriate direction and guidance in the exercise by the child of the rights recognized in the present Convention.

When we are children our education is overseen by our teachers in the schools that we attend, and by the parents, guardians and/or carers that look after us. One form of guardianship or another is a reality for all of us in our first years of study.

While the physical reality of guardianship is well understood by schools and educational systems, that reality is scarcely (if ever) reflected in the digital relationships recognised and enabled between education providers, students and their guardians. 

The digitization of education has initially focused (understandably) on providing education to the student and the running of schools. Little or no focus has been given on how the student’s guardianship situation might be recognised digitally, and how this can be used to improve trust and reduce risks for the student, guardian(s) and school.

Educational systems worldwide are making increased use of digital platforms. As a very simple description, these platforms capture and manage data and determine interactions between students, guardians, teachers, schools and education administrators. For example, students are often given unique identifiers by educational systems that are used to tag the student’s educational records and academic progress whilst in that educational system. Onboarding processes for new students arriving at schools often capture details of their guardianship relationships, sometimes also capturing socio-economic and educational data about the guardians in order to gain insights on population and education.

However there is rarely, if ever, a way for the school and/or system to subsequently verify the student’s guardians online, nor to ensure that the school’s understanding of the relationship is always up to date.

Guardians are typically not given education system-wide unique identifiers (nor do we think that they should be), but our increasing use of remote [digital] teaching, learning and communication means that we need to be able to verify online that a guardian is a guardian of a child, and even what type of guardianship relationship (and rights and duties) that they have.

Why this matters – complexity and risk

In the context of an education system, the limited implementation of digital recognition of guardianship relationships, and the inability to verify these on an as-needed basis, gives rise to risks.

Recognition of guardianship status is often limited to the details recorded in the initial enrolment forms, and any voluntary updates provided by the guardians themselves during their dependent’s enrolment at the school. Contact details of the guardian(s) may be recorded at the time of enrolment, but the ability to respond to an email, phone call, text message or letter only proves control of, or access to, a contact point, not proof of current guardianship status.

Families are complicated, unique, and dynamic: phone numbers, addresses, email accounts, the people involved, their legal names, and their relationships change over time, all the time.

Typically parents, students and schools adopt workarounds in the absence of a verifiable way to prove guardianship online, for example, the student might share their login credentials with their parents or both guardians might share the same login, and the school may perform periodical requests to get updates of details from guardians. The system limitations and these workarounds introduce risks, including:

  • The school is unable to verify that a guardian is still the guardian of the student every time the guardian requests online access. Using the old New-Yorker cartoon analogy, online, no-one knows you’re not a guardian (so long as you know enough about the real guardian(s)).
  • The school cannot be sure that their communications are being received securely by a specific, verified, guardian. Changing family situations can mean that old communication details are no longer valid and ensuring communication goes to the approved guardian is essential.
  • When an unknown adult turns up at the school and claims to have been delegated responsibility for pick-up by the guardian(s) of a child with no prior notice to the school, the school has no way to check, especially if the known guardians are out of contact.

This means that students and their guardians are vulnerable, and schools and their teachers are vulnerable. It’s hard to know that the right people are doing the right thing for the right people and the right student(s) at the right time – and to prove it afterwards.

How might we model and implement guardianship in education?

Our human lives are complex and most don’t get any simpler over time. The way relationships are recognised differs between families, communities, societies and legal systems. And for each different relationship recognised, there are different rights and responsibilities.

Early on in our work we recognised that this complexity was not something that needed simplifying with a technology “solution”, but that our technical approach needed to be able to support this, very human, complexity in all its rich diversity.

In response to this need, and over some time, we developed a mental model for Guardianship described in the Implementation Guidelines document. The model describes guardianship in a general sense, as applicable to the relationship between a parent and a child as it is between an adult carer and their adult dependent, and as it is for an aid camp and the refugees in their care. An overview schematic of the model is provided below.

The model considers the role of governance through the Jurisdiction and its objectives for guardianship which are served by defined guardianship types which comprise the duties and rights of the stakeholders in the relationship. Any specific instance of a guardianship arrangement will define the guardianship type, the specific entities (stakeholders / people) involved in the arrangement, and their duties and rights.

If we view this model through an education lens, we can see that the Jurisdiction can be the State or Country legal system in which the arrangement is recognised. It can also be the educational system governing body, or even the school. Each jurisdiction has its own ability to recognise relationships and sanction the rights and duties of stakeholders. A jurisdiction defined by the School could recognise the rights and duties of the guardian(s) to the student as defined by the school and the education system that it is a part of. For example rights and duties could include:

  • Picking up the child from school
  • Requests for, and participation in, progress discussions
  • Absence notifications
  • Emergency and medical contacts
  • Results distribution
  • Fee Payments

You can see a further exploration of the Jurisdiction concept in this article: Jurisdictions and Guardianship, an essential relationship.

Applying the model to the educational context: the stakeholders are the guardian(s) (parents, carers, guardians), and the student. The guardianship type might be “parent”, “guardian”, “carer” or any type defined by the Jurisdiction in which the arrangement is created and recognised.

The definition of this model then led to the definition of a “Guardianship Credential” type, a definition that is compliant with the W3C Verifiable Credential Data Model, and that supports the concepts defined in the guardianship mental model.

Key elements of the proposed Guardianship Credential are that it:

  • Identifies the Issuer (the organisation that issued the credential)
  • Identifies [and is issued to] the Guardian
  • Identifies the Dependent [who may also receive a credential if appropriate]
  • References the issuing process 
  • Identifies the Jurisdiction
  • Defines the type of the relationship
  • Defines the scope of the relationship [rights and duties]
  • Defines the start date
  • [May] define the end date or condition

Using a “Guardianship Credential” structured as described above, we are able to provide flexibility in terms of the type of relationship, and the specific rights and duties that it confers to the guardian and dependent. We do not need to limit or constrain the types of guardianship that a Jurisdiction needs to recognise, we can accommodate the complex variety of interpretations.

What might that look like in practice?

We are proponents of the “and” approach to improving digital trust in existing models. That is that we build on the existing, working, systems that recognise the relationship between dependents and their guardians. This ‘and’ approach can manifest itself as follows.

The onboarding process for students at the school should be the point at which the existing relationships are verified between the student and their guardians. Building on the enrolment process that takes place now, our proposal is that successful enrolment (and all associated checks) should realise a verifiable credential that is issued to each of the Guardians and to the Student. These Verifiable Credentials are cryptographically secured and uniquely associated with each individual and the issuing authority. 

In the simplest implementation, the school can both issue the credential and be the “consumer” of the credential. It is also possible that the credential could be issued by the State education system (if such a thing exists). In either approach, the School can check that guardians hold the credential appropriate credential for each action that they request. 

Credentials are issued directly to the “holder” (Guardians and Students) and from that point the holder can use the credentials to prove claims to verifying organisations, without the issuer having to be involved.

The diagram below describes these relationships and processes.

We typically describe four key checks made possible by cryptography and the use of W3C Verifiable Credentials:

  1. Proof of who issued the credential
  2. Proof of who it was issued to
  3. Proof of whether it has been tampered with
  4. Proof of whether it has been revoked

Revocation means that the issuer has revoked the credential (for whatever reason). 

All these checks take place between the verifying organisation and the holder of the credential without the issuer being contacted.

Why we think this can and should be done

We understand that this is a complex subject and that it demands more than just a technology solution. Getting this right is important to our lives as students, as guardians, and as members of a healthy society. State parties have existing legal and social systems that recognise the relationships and responsibilities between dependents and their guardians in the “physical world” and that also enable changing circumstances and protections to be recognised. 

Our approach is to build on those systems rather than propose brand new models. We need a digital approach that reflects these existing understandings and approach to guardianship, and that doesn’t impose some brave new world thinking. We also need to make sure that any approach does not disadvantage those unable to access digital solutions.

The model we present for guardianship, using W3C developed open standards, provides a flexible, secure and privacy enhancing mechanism to implement verifiable guardianship for schools, their students and the guardians of their students. It enables representations that are as simple, or as complex, as Jurisdictions require and recognise. In addition, this approach can work alongside physical approaches (such as QR codes on physical credentials) where digital solutions are not available.

The approach is based on open-standards and with a world-wide community developing open-source solutions – it doesn’t lock institutions or people into proprietary vendor models of software or hardware.

The technology on which this approach is based supports all forms of verifiable credentials, including educational and life experience achievements.

As an initial implementation it offers a trustworthy way to reflect existing real-world processes, in the future it will offer new ways for schools and educational systems to provide and protect their services and for students and guardians to benefit from these services.

We think this approach provides a good way to progress an essential capability. Always keen to know what others think.

About the Author
John Phillips
John Phillips John believes that Self Sovereign Identity represents a better model for digital identity for people, organisations, and things on a global scale. He sees SSI as a disruptive force for change for good, and wants to be a catalyst for that change, helping people and organisations navigate their way to a better future.

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