Last May the Department for Education (DfE) announced that for the first time ever schools will have to record the nationality and country of birth of all pupils as part of the school census. The move has been made in the context of government efforts to investigate ‘education tourism’, as part of a wider campaign to create a hostile environment for undocumented migrants. Against Borders for Children (ABC) believes that although the new measure is cause for grave concern, we can work together to resist it.
1. The data will be accessible to Immigration Enforcement.
It’s a statutory requirement for schools to collect certain data about their pupils — such as their date of birth and address — as part of a school census which takes place three times each year. That information is then fed into the national pupil database (NPD), which currently holds the data of over 20m people. From September the data collected will include the nationality and country of birth of every pupil between the ages of two and 19.
The government’s stated reason for the change is that it wants to “assess and monitor the scale and impact immigration may be having on the schools sector,” as well as help to identify children for whom English might be a second language. However, as children’s privacy campaigners Defend Digital Me (DDM) point out, there are currently no published plans for how this data would facilitate the targeting of additional support. Nor has the DfE explained why the data already held by the Office of National Statistics is insufficient to meet the government’s needs.
In reality the parties that could benefit most from these changes are the Home Office and the police. A freedom of information request by DDM uncovered that the Home Office has made 20 requests for data from the NPD since April 2012. 18 of these requests were granted, with the remaining two only being denied because the database did not contain the information sought. Similarly, the police submitted 31 access requests in the same period, all of which were granted.
Immigration raids in London have increased by 80% in the last five years, and Theresa May has refused to rule out post-Brexit repatriation of EU migrants. Against this backdrop, it’s worrying that the new link between a pupil’s country of birth and their address may be used by the Home Office to assist in its continued harassment and persecution of migrants.
2. The data will be public.
The Home Office isn’t the only party that will have access to this information. DDM have uncovered that data from the NPD has already been repeatedly handed out to newspapers and other third parties. The new information stored in the NPD from September will also no doubt be accessible via freedom of information requests. With everyone from Owen Smith to Ofsted inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw decrying the impact of immigration on the education system, racist and xenophobic forces in the media and beyond will undoubtedly use this new data to bolster their attacks on migrants.
3. It will adversely affect the children of migrants in precarious legal situations.
Back in 2013 ministers considered proposals to force schools to ascertain the immigration status of all pupils before they began school. At the time civil servants warned this might put the UK in contravention of Article 28 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child: if schools start to demand birth certificates and identification documents from parents it will almost inevitably cause migrants in precarious legal situations to avoid sending their children to state schools. In effect these changes to the school census may allow the government to ascertain the immigration status of school children through the backdoor; a suspicion voiced by parents and teachers, as well as campaign groups like (ABC).
Gargi, a mother of two from east London, is worried about the effect these changes will have in the current political climate:
“I am really worried about this process of creating a national database of ‘foreign children’. Collecting this information in schools does not add any useful data – that is already collected through other means – so I have to think that the main point is to stigmatise migrant children and to teach other children that migrants are different and lesser. My eldest child has told me how worried many of his friends have been after the referendum. Children understand that being a migrant is seen to be a bad thing now and that there is a question mark about their belonging here. After the attacks on community centres, I am worried that some schools will be attacked because of their association with migrant children and families.”
4. Resistance is possible.
The good news is that there is no legal obligation for parents to supply this new information to schools. However this legal right of refusal is not being properly communicated to parents, and unless parental refusal is carried out on a mass scale it is unlikely to have any significant impact on the DfE.
A possible avenue of resistance is provided by the Data Protection Act, which gives individuals the right to ask organisations not to process information they have already given them, because such processing would be likely to cause ‘damage or distress’. However, it is unclear at the moment whether parents will be able to request this of schools on behalf of their children.
In our view the most effective way to resist these changes is to put pressure on schools to refuse to collect the data en masse, and to target the DfE directly. This is what organisations such as ABC and DDM are currently attempting to do. But time is of the essence, and without a rapid mass mobilisation of parents and educators the government may well succeed in transforming school administrators into border guards.
You can follow the Against Borders for Children campaign and find out how to get involved on their website, Twitter and Facebook pages.