The collection of nationality and country of birth data in schools and nurseries was a change in policy announced without much fanfare last spring. The government intended to link this new data to other information such as address and ethnicity that is held in the National Pupil Database (NPD). The NPD contains the records of around 20 million people. The data is never deleted, and identifiable information on individual pupils is accessible to the Home Office, the police, and third parties such as researchers and the press.
In 2013, ministers and civil servants discussed excluding children with irregular migration status from schools. Next, in 2015, the then-education secretary Nicky Morgan announced a review of ‘education tourism’. This policy on ‘foreign children lists’ was introduced in May. As recently as October, just after Amber Rudd was forced into a climbdown on her proposals for foreign worker lists, a parliamentary question revealed that the Home Office has requested the data of thousands of children from the DfE in the last 15 months alone, including for immigration enforcement purposes.
Whatever justification the DfE might give for the new data collection, the wider context of the “hostile environment” cannot be ignored. The last few years have seen successive pieces of legislation decimate migrants’ access to justice while turning employers, banks, the DVLA, landlords, and health workers into border guards. This was no time to sit back and watch teachers be added to that list. Schools should be a safe place for all children, not potential collaborators with immigration enforcement.
Strength in numbers
When the campaign started in September, we took the fight straight to government, and wrote a letter to Justine Greening calling on her to scrap the data collection. A wide range of human rights groups signed in solidarity with us; from Privacy International and the Open Rights Group, to Liberty and the Refugee Council. That was enough to get us press coverage in almost all of the national papers. At the same time, we launched a social media campaign to get the word out to as many schools and parents as possible: you do not have to answer the new questions on nationality and country of birth, and refusing to do so protects migrant children and sends a strong signal to government about the kind of society we want to live in.
And then the stories from schools and parents began to pour in: children being asked for passports, contrary to official guidance; schools targeting only foreign pupils for the new information in a clearly discriminatory way; schools wrongly telling parents that the new questions were mandatory; migrant children singled out and embarrassed in front of their classmates.
#BoycottSchoolCensus trended on Twitter, and well-placed FOI requests submitted by our brilliant sister campaign defenddigitalme kept the issue high on the political agenda. The House of Lords passed a motion regretting the new data collection on 31 October, with one peer remarking that it has “all the hallmarks of racism”. And long overdue scrutiny in the House of Commons is expected in the coming weeks, thanks to a motion tabled by Jeremy Corbyn.
The first signs that the policy was crumbling came just before the debate in the House of Lords, when 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 Department for Education last week, 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. Credit is due to the civil servants at the DfE who took the time to listen to the stories of the migrant families at the heart of all this: of the parents scared to send their children to school; and the migrant children told to “go home” by their classmates.
The fight continues
Now that the government is on the back foot it’s crucial that we keep the pressure up. We might have spared the pre-schoolers, but the nationality and country of birth questions are set to remain in the next School Census, due on 19 January. 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.
We have a long way yet to go, but the successes of the campaign so far show us just how much we can achieve when we work in solidarity against forces that initially seem much bigger and more powerful than we are: a note of quiet encouragement for these troubled times.