A controversial government census that Lords say “smacks of racism” is set to go ahead, despite increasing pressure from data protection campaigners and human rights groups.
Since September this year, schools, colleges and nurseries have been required to ask parents for personal information including the nationality, place of birth and English language proficiency of their children.
Debating the matter in Parliament, Lords rejected the census, warning that asking schools to record pupil nationality had “all the hallmarks of racism” and victimised children as young as two on the basis of their ethnicity.
Meeting with campaigners on Wednesday, however, Department for Education officials confirmed the government had no plans to retract the census, and would continue to collect nationality and birth-place data – a move campaigners said was “deeply disappointing”.
In an open letter to MPs, Schools Against Borders for Children – a coalition of parents, teachers, schools and campaigners, have urged parents to boycott the next school census for fear information could be used for third party purposes, including immigration enforcement.
Their concerns follow information exposed through a Freedom of Information request that confirms police forces and the Home Office have been handed information from the National Pupil Database in past months.
Meeting with Ian Bell, Head of Data for the DfE, representatives from Schools Against Borders urged the government to scrap the requirement for schools to collect the information, on the grounds that it “violates the right to privacy” for children and families and acts as a “foreign children list”.
Campaign co-ordinator Gracie Mae Bradley said: “We are grateful to the Department for Education for meeting us to discuss our serious concerns over this divisive school census.
“Regrettably there was little indication that the DfE understands the gravity or the scale of the risks of their current course of action.
“It’s deeply disappointing that a mass boycott may be the only way to put a stop to these foreign children lists.”
Growing opposition to the policy now includes politicians across party lines in the House of Commons, following a successful motion of regret in the House of Lords.
The National Union of Teachers has also reacted against the census, warning the government that “schools are not part of policing immigration”.
While the school census has existed for some years previously, requirements for schools to record new details including nationality for the national database was introduced for the first time this term.
The changes have resulted in widespread confusion, with a number of schools incorrectly asking for pupils’ passports and in some cases being advised to guess pupil ethnicity for lack of proof.
One parent with two young children who is supporting the campaign, said: “The foreign children database has frightened a lot of people, with schools chasing parents up to show children’s passports: it just feels unreal.
“I fear about what it says about the country I’m raising my kids in, especially post-Brexit and now post-Trump. Nurseries should not dividing children by immigration status.”
Speaking in the House of Lords earlier this month, Liberal Democrat Education Spokesperson Lord Storey said the new legislation was rushed through without scrutiny during the summer recess, and littered with flaws.
He said: “It is deeply concerning that the Government are creating a vast database of children’s nationalities without giving any reason why it is needed.
“I am afraid that this proposal has all the hallmarks of racism, particularly as language codes are already recorded for pupils with English as an additional language, as are codes on their ethnic background.”
Responding to concerns over how pupil data might be used, the DfE insisted that any information on nationality, ethnicity or otherwise would be stored for the department’s own analysis and records.
A DfE spokesperson said: “Gathering data on pupils’ country of birth, nationality and English proficiency as part of the National School Census will be used to help us better understand how children with, for example, English as an additional language perform in terms of their broader education, and to assess and monitor the scale and impact immigration may be having on the schools sector.
“However, our guidance is clear that there is no requirement for headteachers to ascribe nationality or ethnicity to their pupils. A pupil’s background is personal to them, and if a parent or guardian does not wish to provide this information, schools should record ‘refused’ on their systems.”