Civil rights advocates, privacy groups and teachers have welcomed the UK government’s reversal of the controversial 2016 decision to monitor schoolchildren’s nationality for immigration purposes.
Last week the education sector publication Schools Week reported that the Department for Education (DfE) is expected to write to schools outlining their plans to remove the controversial categories from their census.
Following a Freedom of Information (FoI) request it transpired that the government’s National Pupil Database (NPD) had been used to combat ‘abuse of immigration control’ despite assurances that children’s data would never be passed to border officials.
But in further FoI requests it also transpired that since 2012 21 requests for information had been granted to the police while 18 requests were granted to the Home Office.
The demand that schools gather data on their children came into force in 2016 in a compromise deal by the DfE in an effort to stop stricter proposals from the then Home Secretary, Theresa May.
She wanted teachers to carry out immigration checks and for schools to ‘deprioritise’ places for the children of illegal immigrants. This led to some schools demanding to see pupils’ passports and reports that non-white children were being targeted.
Among the FoI revelations was a memo of understanding between the DfE and the Home Office which talked about the ‘strategic aim’ of the data-sharing was to create a ‘hostile environment’ for those who ‘seek to benefit from the abuse of immigration control’.
At the time the government insisted the aim was to aid schools to cope better with pupils who’s first language was not English. And ministers stated that they would never be passed to the Home Office.
The data will be collected solely for departmental use for the analytical, statistical and research purposes. There are currently no plans to share the data with other government departments unless we are legally required to do so.- Nick Gibb: MP, Minister for School Standards
The U-turn follows challenges in the courts by the campaign group Against Borders For Children and the human rights charity Liberty. An appeal was launched against the High Court’s initial refusal to allow them to take the case to judicial review.
It also came after the DfE was forced to admit it had failed to collect data on a quarter of pupils. This was due in part to parents’ refusal to comply and some schools failing to submit their census returns.
The DfE database contains records of 20 million pupils starting from 2000. The data includes names, postcodes, ethnicity, absence records, exclusion orders, disabilities and whether a pupil is getting free school meals.
This is a huge victory for the teachers, parents and campaigners who stood up and refused to comply with this poisonous attempt to build foreign children lists.
It gives us huge hope that if more people stand up and resist we can succeed in dismantling the government’s hostile environment policies piece by piece.- Gracie Bradley: Advocacy Officers, Liberty
Campaigners have warned that the battle is not over. The DfE continues to share pupil details, such as addresses and school names with the Home Office for immigration control purposes. Schools Week has asserted that 1,500 such requests are being made each month.
And these concerns have been echoed by activists lobbying against the deal that allows NHS Digital to share non-clinical data on patients with the Home Office for immigration enforcement purposes.