On October 6, the evening the autumn School Census was completed, a Freedom of Information request from campaigners at defenddigitalme finally received a response from the Department for Education (DfE). Now we were already aware that data from the National Pupil Database (NPD) had been accessed by the Home Office on 18 occasions between 2012 and 2016. We didn’t know for what purpose, however, although looking at data-sharing between the Home Office and other departments, we had our suspicions. The response received by defenddigitalme on October 6 confirmed our worst fears: that data from the NPD has been shared with the Home Office for immigration enforcement purposes. To be clear: on 18 occasions does not mean that the Home Office has used the NPD to look up the details of 18 people. It may have been looking for the details of several people – dozens, hundreds – on each occasion; we don’t know how many. And up until now, parents and the public have had no idea.
In a statement to The Guardian, the DfE tried to allay parents’ fears, saying “[T]his [new country of birth and nationality] data has not and will not be shared with the Home Office or police and there is an agreement in place to this effect.” But this doesn’t reassure us. First, we have no evidence that the agreement is actually in place. Since the DfE suggested in a meeting on September 29 that there was an agreement under discussion, requests by campaigners and journalists to see the agreement have not, to date, been fulfilled. Second, despite repeated opportunities in the press and in Parliament to be open and transparent about how data is used and shared with other departments, the DfE has up until now kept parents, schools, and the public in the dark. Third, and worse still, the DfE actually admits in its own statement to The Guardian that not only has it been sharing kids’ home addresses and school details with the Home Office, it also plans to continue to do so.
Against this backdrop, it’s vital that we resist any attempts to expand data collection through the School Census, and work to roll back extensions that have already been made in time for the next School Census date, 19 January 2017. There will be a debate and vote on the new country of birth and nationality data collection in the House of Lords on Monday 31 October This is a crucial opportunity to have the policy scrapped. However, what the DfE has said so far is:
“There is no quantifiable evidence to support the claim that many school staff and parents have concerns regarding the collection of this new data. The Department have not received any formal complaints from schools or parents regarding the changes to the school census data and, for example, discussions on parental public forums (such as mums net) suggest that the majority of people are supportive of the changes.”
This is where you come in. We know that hundreds of parents, teachers and kids are all dismayed about this new data collection; many of you have been in touch to tell us so and have expressed your concerns publicly. In the run-up to the debate, the House of Lords needs to understand that lots of people are worried, and with good reason. To that end, we’re asking you to write to, call, or email your local MPs and councillors to explain why you’re concerned about nationality and country of birth data collection in the School Census, and asking them to raise it with the Lords. You could even write to the Lords directly, if you have a connection to one. When millions of EU citizens in the UK are facing an uncertain future, and the government is discussing forcing firms to report numbers of foreign workers, now is the time for each and every one of us to speak up for the rights of migrant children and their families, wherever they come from.