News / National Pupil Database pupil privacy

A foreign office apology, Home Office secret use, forced ethnic labels: The school census 2016

The purpose behind collecting country-of-birth and nationality data in the school census has been blown out of the water. The ethnicity data collection has caused discrimination and flawed ascription. The language codes have been the subject of a Foreign Office apology and reported offer to delete data already assigned. How long can the school census expansion retain any integrity?

Country-of-birth and Nationality

Letters leaked to the BBC last week, revealed the compromise agreed between the Department for Education and the Home Office in response to HO pressure to introduce stringent immigration control measures in schools, including passport checks.
The agreement and its timing confirms what many feared when the review of ‘education tourism’ was announced in August 2015,  that the change to collect country-of-birth and nationality data signed off in the following November 2015 meeting was not about collecting personal data in the best interests of pupils for education purposes, but a Home Office requested measure.
Whether deprioritising would have led to the withholding of a child’s right to education, or deportation, is questionable given the monthly policy introduced at the same time, to start using the National Pupil Database for regular provision of home address and school address to the Home Office for the purposes of immigration controls enforcement.
It should also be remembered that when asked the government has not been transparent about the Home Office use of school census data until FOI forced the facts into the public domain in October 2016.
In response to written parliamentary questions 42842 and 42942 in July 2016 asking for what purpose that information will be used and  whether that information will be shared with other Government departments. Nick Gibb replied: “The data will be collected solely for the Department’s internal use for the analytical, statistical and research purposes described above. There are currently no plans to share the data with other government departments unless we are legally required to do so.” Justine Greening avoided it in the House of Commons and the Lords spokesman appeared to intend to deny it saying, ‘I can reassure the noble Lord the information is not given to the Home Office.” and that “that the information is kept within the Department for Education.”
We still await confirmation that the new database will not be used to support the decision making that provides home address and school address matched to lists of individuals’ names that the Home Office gives to the Department for Education to find.
Given that these new data are to be collected on every state school child in England and that collection must meet the principles of Data Protection law on purposes limitation, use, and fair processing, the legality of the entire expanded collection continues to be doubtful.


The language collection was called out in July by practitioners in Schools Week who saw through its flimsy design, tagged on in February 2016, seemingly as an afterthought, and may prove to have been nothing more than a fig leaf of respectability for the Home Office census expansion agreement.
In October the Italian government objected to the recording of two specific dialects and questioned why these but no others were being recorded on Italian children. Given the stereotypical prejudices associated with Sicilians and Neapolitans and the Home Office access to data, this use of dialect is clearly politically sensitive, and resulted in an international diplomatic complaint. La Stampa reported:
“The embassy, therefore, asked the Foreign Office for “the immediate removal” of this unnecessary pseudo-ethnic characterization, which has nothing to do with the importance of genuine regional or Italian dialects.” and that “The Foreign Office promised to correct the modules to erase all traces of possible offence.” That means deleting data.  We have asked for what exactly was agreed. Will the past data collected deletion be confirmed to individuals, how will schools be told to change their forms? Lord Nash has said country-of-birth and nationality data wrongly given in the autumn census may be deleted too? What is happening with all of that, as we’ve seen no communication to schools, parents or pupils, and time marches ever closer to January 19th, Spring census day.


The flaws in the census expansion demonstrated in this school census collection have included discrimination and harm, and the ethnicity data collection included councils telling schools to ascribe data and over rule parents and pupils consent who chose not to provide it. The system design has fields set up to enable this. 

We are yet to hear how these failures in fair collection are to be resolved and fixed before January 19th, the next on-roll collection day.

A question of integrity

The whole Statutory Instrument on country-of-birth, nationality, and language expansion was the subject of a successful motion-of-regret in October. The intent of the changes have been misrepresented. While the Department stuck its head in the sand after criticism and concerns raised since May 2016, and suggested in September that there had been no complaints using Mumsnet as its measure, that has now changed. The Mumsnet comments don’t hold back.
This school census expansion and data collection is clearly flawed in all parts in policy and practice. How long can it remain with any integrity?
Parents can retract data from the autumn School census submission We strongly recommend they do so and suggest concerned parents and pupils see the Against Borders for Children Campaign materials for anyone who wishes to retract data and see the twitter updates for further updates on #BoycottSchoolCensus.