The AGAINST BORDERS FOR CHILDREN campaign describes how the Department for Education has collected and shared student nationality data with the Home Office to target the children of migrants in Britain
SINCE September 2016, schools around England and Wales have been statutorily required to record the nationality and country of birth of all children aged 4 to 19, as part of the thrice yearly School Census.
The stated reason for this change — according to the Department for Education (DfE) — was to monitor the impact of immigration upon the schools sector, so as to better target resources and support for schools with a high number of children for whom English is not a first language.
However, given that data on the first languages of children is already collected by the Office for National Statistics, this was clearly a ruse.
We founded the Against Borders for Children campaign (ABC) because we suspected the DfE had an altogether different motive: to make schools a hostile environment for the children of migrants and to use this data for the purposes of immigration enforcement.
Our suspicions proved to be well founded. Freedom of Information (FOI) requests submitted by our brilliant sister campaign, Defend Digital Me revealed that between 2012 and 2016 the National Pupil Database (NPD) — on which School Census data is stored — was accessed 18 times by the Home Office for the purposes of immigration enforcement.
In fact, since June 2015, the DfE has had a memorandum of understanding with the Home Office, in which it agrees to share the personal details of up to 1,500 schoolchildren per month.
Leaked Cabinet letters published by the BBC reveal that back in 2015, then home secretary Theresa May wanted to use the latest immigration Bill to create a “hostile environment” for so-called “illegal” migrants.
As part of these plans, May wanted to force all schools to check the immigration status of pupils and to shunt the children of irregular migrants to the back of the queue for school places.
Although this exact proposal was blocked by Education Secretary Nicky Morgan, the DfE and Home Office were able to reach a compromise: schools would not perform immigration checks but they would record the nationality and country of birth of school children as part of the School Census.
Thankfully, the statutory instrument responsible for this new data collection does afford us a clear avenue of resistance: parents can refuse to submit country of birth and nationality data to school administrators. However, in order for parental refusal to have any effect on government policy, it must take the form of a co-ordinated, mass boycott.
Indeed, by the DfE’s own admission, if large numbers of parents refuse to answer the new questions, the data collected will be useless and they may be forced to scrap the data collection entirely. Bringing this to pass has been one of the key aims of ABC since day one.
Since the data collection began, we have been inundated with emails from parents, outraged at the DfE’s policy and the way it was being implemented by individual schools.
From these emails we learnt that children were being asked to bring their passports into school to verify the information submitted by their parents; that parents were being told submitting information was mandatory; that only children thought to be foreign were being asked to submit data and — perhaps most farcically of all — that the data input form used by many schools encourages administrators to guess the ethnicity and nationality of pupils, in case where this information is otherwise unavailable. Undeterred, we convened a coalition of groups — including Liberty, the National Union of Students and City of Sanctuary — to challenge the government head on.
Following an open letter to Education Secretary Justine Greening, we had a series of meetings with the DfE, in which we demanded that the policy be scrapped completely and that the children of migrants be properly safeguarded from racism and xenophobia.
Thanks both to our hashtag #BoycottSchoolCensus trending on Twitter and several well-placed FOI requests submitted by the Defend Digital Me campaign, we were able to keep the issue high on the political agenda.
This resulted in the House of Lords passing a motion regretting the new data collection on October 31, with one peer remarking that the policy has “all the hallmarks of racism.”
While this did not lead to the data collection being scrapped altogether, we have been able to force the government to make several key concessions.
Shortly before the debate in the House of Lords, Education Spokesman Lord Nash reportedly wrote to peers to say that the new data will not be held in the NPD due to its sensitivity. Then, the day after we met with civil servants at the DfE, the government announced another U-turn: it will not attempt to collect nationality or country of birth data on toddlers through the Early Years Census this January.
What’s more, parents can request that any data already submitted to schools be deleted.
Nonetheless, the DfE has stated that it intends to go ahead with the second round of data collection, scheduled to begin on January 19 2017. But if the data is unusable, the DfE won’t be able to justify its continued collection.
That’s why we’re encouraging all parents to answer “refused” to the new nationality and country of birth questions. There’s no sanction for doing so, and absent a change of heart from government, or more concerted parliamentary opposition, this may be the only way to get this risky and divisive policy scrapped for good.
• Against Borders for Children will hold their first conference today at 12:30-5pm at SOAS, University of London. Visit www.schoolsabc.net for more information on the campaign.