Author: Damien Gayle
The government has revoked parents’ right to retract information on their children’s nationality and country of birth submitted to the schools census, months before Brexit throws the immigration status of 3 million European residents into doubt.
Officials from the Department for Education (DfE) collected the data on 6 million schoolchildren, before it was halted last June in the face of opposition from critics who said it was an attempt to turn schools into internal border checkpoints.
Confusion over the policy had already led some schools to instruct only pupils who were not “white British” to bring in identity documents, spreading alarm that it was encouraging racism and a culture of institutional hostility to migrants.
Now ministers have confirmed that not only will they continue to store the data already collected, but also that parents can no longer ask schools to enter “refused”, which instructs the DfE to delete their children’s data.
Schools and families have not been informed of the change in policy, which was revealed in an answer to a parliamentary question last month. Nick Gibb, the schools minister, said the “last opportunity for parents to retract [nationality and country of birth] information was via the last [schools census] collection in summer 2018”.
Other data from the DfE will still be used for immigration enforcement, Gibb added. “Where the police or Home Office have clear evidence that a child may be at risk or evidence of criminal activity, including immigration, [that] pupil’s address and school details may be requested from the national pupil database,” he said in response to a separate question. Both questions were tabled by David Lammy, the Labour MP.
The schools census is a termly collection of details of pupils in every state school by the DfE. It includes details such as age, address and academic attainment, which are recorded in the national pupil database. Figures released in December showed that in the year to September 2018 the Home Office requested data on 835 children from the DfE, which provided it in 247 cases.
When concerns were first raised about collection of children’s nationality and country of birth, the DfE had insisted that the new data would not be shared with immigration enforcement authorities, that it was only being collected for “analytical, statistical and research purposes”, and that parents could opt out whenever they wanted.
But when it emerged that names and addresses of children collected through the census had since 2015 been secretly shared every month with immigration enforcement, thousands of parents in 2016 heeded calls by human rights groups and teachers’ unions to boycott the questions.
After a freedom of information battle, campaigners subsequently exposed a memorandum of understanding between the DfE and the Home Office that showed that officials had originally intended for nationality and birth country data to be used for immigration enforcement.
In a move that suggests ministers had misled public over their plans, the memorandum had been quietly amended some months after public opposition emerged – and after assurances had already been given – to remove references to nationality and country of birth.
Last month, Against Borders for Children (ABC), a group set up to campaign against the use of children’s data for immigration enforcement, began legal action against Damian Hinds, the education secretary, to force his department to delete the data it currently holds.
Kwadwo Kyerewaa, a spokesman for ABC, said: “The DfE should live up to its purpose and ensure that every child has a right to education without fear of immigration enforcement.
“Recent data-sharing statistics show that families are providing data that has been re-purposed for immigration enforcement without their informed consent. We hope the Information Commissioner’s Office will put an end to this shameful and shocking practice.”
As 2019 begins…
… we’re asking readers to make a new year contribution in support of The Guardian’s independent journalism. More people are reading our independent, investigative reporting than ever but advertising revenues across the media are falling fast. And unlike many news organisations, we haven’t put up a paywall – we want to keep our reporting as open as we can. So you can see why we need to ask for your help.
The Guardian is editorially independent, meaning we set our own agenda. Our journalism is free from commercial bias and not influenced by billionaire owners, politicians or shareholders. No one edits our editor. No one steers our opinion. This is important as it enables us to give a voice to those less heard, challenge the powerful and hold them to account. It’s what makes us different to so many others in the media, at a time when factual, honest reporting is critical.
Please make a new year contribution today to help us deliver the independent journalism the world needs for 2019 and beyond. Support The Guardian from as little as $1 – and it only takes a minute. Thank you.