#BoycottSchoolCensus – One Year On: The Fight To Defend Migrant Children Continues

A year ago today, Statutory Instrument 2016/808 slipped quietly into force. It looks innocuous enough, but it’s the law that allows the Department for Education (DfE) to collect children’s nationality and country of birth through the school census.

When the Against Borders for Children (ABC) campaign launched a couple of weeks later, we knew that the National Pupil Database (NPD) was insecure and opaque. Identifiable information on children aged 5 – 19 is collected by schools and held there forever. Nobody has the right to ask what information the database holds on them, or whether it is accurate. And the DfE hands identifiable data out to third parties including journalists and private companies.

What we also knew in September is that the Home Office and the police had accessed the NPD too.  Against the backdrop of a referendum vote that had thrown the rights of millions of people living here under EU law into jeopardy, and Theresa May’s mission to create a “hostile environment” for migrants, we didn’t trust the government with children’s nationality data. And especially not when as recently as 2015, it had been trying to scaremonger the idea of “education tourism” into being.  What’s more, in 2013 coalition ministers had contemplated a truly diabolical policy: excluding the children of undocumented migrants from school entirely.

The beginnings of #BoycottSchoolCensus

We thought we’d give the government the opportunity to do the right thing first of all. Along with almost 20 other human rights and anti-racism groups including Migrants’ Rights Network, JCWI and Liberty, we wrote to Education Minister Justine Greening and asked her to protect migrant children in schools and scrap the data collection. But of course, that was to assume that the government had a conscience. As expected, it pressed on with its plans, and #BoycottSchoolCensus began in earnest.

With only woefully poor guidance from the DfE to follow, schools made huge mistakes in collecting the data. Some constituted significant breaches of children’s privacy rights, and others were downright racist. National papers reported schools asking only non-white pupils for their nationality. Some schools wrongly asked children to show their passports.

Across the board, schools failed to inform parents that they have a right to refuse to hand over their child’s nationality or country of birth data.  But we knew that if every parent exercised that right to refuse, it would make the dataset unusable to the government, and tell them what all of us already know: migrant children and families are integral parts of our communities, and border controls have no place in our classrooms.

A truly chilling agenda

What we’ve found out over the short lifetime of the campaign is truly chilling. While we were initially concerned that new nationality data would be shared with the Home Office, it turns out that the DfE has actually been operating a secret deportation machine using children’s school records since 2015. The agreement, released through FOI in December, shows that children’s names, addresses and other personal details are harvested from the NPD and routinely handed over to the Home Office by the DfE at a rate of up to 1500 children a month. The agreement doesn’t just target undocumented children, but any child that has an undocumented family member that might be traced through their school records.

What’s more, the FOI release shows that the government had always intended to hand over nationality data to the Home Office once it was collected. It only removed nationality from the data-sharing agreement in response to public pressure.

And December brought us another nasty shock: leaked letters revealed that in 2015, Theresa May had wanted to use the Immigration Bill to require schools to check children’s immigration status, and push the children of undocumented migrants to the back of the queue for school places. She only withdrew these measures when Nicky Morgan, then Education Secretary, agreed to collect nationality and country of birth data as a compromise. The DfE’s protests that nationality data is being collected for the benefit of migrant children turned out to be a barefaced lie.

Big wins, but the battle isn’t over

While exposure of the government’s nefarious agenda has left us with serious concerns about where this country is headed, with the support of parents and teachers, the campaign has won successes that fill us with hope.

We pulled off a successful motion in the House of Lords regretting that children’s nationality data is being collected. “Children are children”, said Lord Storey, “and to use their personal information for immigration enforcement is disingenuous, irresponsible, and not the hallmark of a tolerant, open and caring society”.

Almost every opposition party, the National Union of Teachers (now part of National Education Union), and even the former head of Ofsted have denounced the policy.

We embarrassed the government into keeping nationality data out of the leaky NPD.

We won parents the right to retract nationality data that was collected under false pretences.

We forced a change in the data-sharing agreement between the Home Office and the DfE to ensure that nationality data is not shared for immigration enforcement purposes.

We pressured the DfE into rewriting its guidance to schools for the 2017-18 year, emphasising parents’ rights to refuse and retract nationality data.

And the day after we met with DfE officials in November, they announced a massive climbdown – that ill-judged attempts to collect nationality data from 2-5 year olds would not go ahead.

Why we’re keeping up the fight

The government can’t be honest about how its brutal austerity measures have crippled our public services, so it’s blaming migrants instead. As border controls mushroom, dragging doctors, teachers and social workers into the dirty work of immigration enforcement, campaigns of non-compliance are key to protecting migrants from the racist vilification that they increasingly face.

And schools are a cornerstone of that non-compliance. Even if the government isn’t sharing children’s nationality data now, it could rescind that promise at any moment. It could also use the data as a basis for a future policy that restricts migrant children’s access to school – all the evidence shows that it has been trying to do this for years.  And the agreement to share other parts of children’s school records, including home addresses, continues to deliver immigration enforcement officers to the front doors of unsuspecting children and families.

What you can do

If you’re a parent

  • Respond ‘refused’ to any request for your child’s nationality or country of birth. This is your right and there is no sanction for doing so. You can use our template letter to do this.
  • If you gave data in previous censuses, retract it by answering ‘refused’ to nationality or country of birth in this census. This will overwrite any data you gave in the past.Encourage other parents to do the same whatever their immigration status – the more parents that refuse to give nationality data, the better protected migrant children will be.
  • Contact us to tell us why you oppose this policy, and we will support you to turn your concerns into action.

If you’re a teacher

  • Record ‘not yet obtained’ as the default nationality and country of birth for all children in your class. Let parents know that they can opt in to giving their child’s nationality or country of birth data, but only if they want to.
  • Talk to your headteacher and local union branch about how you can use your collective power to oppose the encroachment of border controls into your school.
  • Contact us to tell us why you oppose this policy, and we will support you to turn your concerns into action.

What everyone can do – donate some time to the campaign

The ABC campaign is run by a handful of people, most of whom do other full-time work, and we need all hands on deck to keep going! Wherever in the country you are based, if you have time or skills that you could put to good use with us, contact outreach@schoolsabc.net and we’d be glad to have you join us.  Having been supported thus far by migrant youth groups Jawaab, Sin Fronteras and Let Us Learn, we’re particularly keen to hear from young migrants on what our priorities should be for the coming year.

We’ll be holding an open meeting on Saturday 16th September, 2pm – 5pm

Room S209, Senate House,
SOAS, University of London
Thornhaugh Street
Russell Square
London WC1H 0XG

and we’d love to see some of you in person there too.

Watch this space, and in the meantime:

Refuse. Retract. Resist.