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The making of a very bad law: school census nationality data one year on

One year ago on July 27, 2016, the law was laid, that snuck through in the six-week school summer holidays. It took effect on September 1, 2016  before any possible parliamentary or public scrutiny. The British government then began to collect the nationality data of every school child in England.
What followed, was a struggle to find out the truth behind what the public and teachers were told, and turned out to be a lie. It was a lie repeated to us, to the public, to Parliament, and to the press.
The timeline one year on, tells the story not of a new data collection law, but a nasty change in national policy towards children and its cover up.

“no plans” to pass these data to the Home Office was not true

Nick Gibb MP, Minister of State for School Standards, had denied in July 2016 that there were plans for the new data to be shared with any other Government departments in two written parliamentary questions [1]. Other Ministers in both Houses continued to assure members in debates that the purposes of nationality collection was to understand the impact of immigration on the education sector. The House of Lords was given assurance, “that the information is kept within the Department for Education and is not passed on to the Home Office.” The press was told that there were “no plans” to pass these data to the Home Office.
It was not true on any of those dates when that was claimed. There were plans for Border Force use of nationality data “once collected”.
The truth came out through information obtained via Freedom-of-Information six months later in December 2016. An agreement had existed between the DfE and Home Office for a year – since July 2015 – and the Department was already handing over an agreed “up to 1,500 pupils’” personal data every month [2] for the purposes of Border Force and immigration enforcement.
This agreement revealed, contrary to public statements, the intent to hand over pupil nationality data to the Home Office. [3]
The original version of the agreement in place between July 2015 and October 14, 2016, would share “(Once collected) Nationality” [MOU para 15.2.6] with data users from the Border Force Removals Casework team. This MOU had been backdated and amended effective Oct 7, 2016 (the day after the first collection of the new data in the autumn school census 2016) apparently after campaign pressure, from over 20 rights organisations and press scrutiny.
The truth is that the “strategic aims” of the data sharing agreement expressly include re-establishing contact with families the Home Office has lost contact with, to reduce the population of illegal migrants, and to “create a hostile environment for those who seek to benefit from the abuse of immigration control.”
The truth was that Theresa May’s original plan had been to ‘deprioritse’ migrant children’s school places, and to require every child to show their passport in school. These plans had been watered down in 2015 as a result of then Secretary of State for Education Nicky Morgan’s interventions with David Cameron, and the nationality data collection from every child was agreed instead as a compromise. These further plans only came into the public domain through letters leaked in December 2016.

Trust and harm

Public and professional trust in the school census collection has been harmed by this misuse of public data. A boycott of the new nationality items has meant patchy data collection, and the DfE has refused to disclose facts about the data collected. Of the schools and parents that have heard of the issues, despite no communication by the Department about Home Office uses, some have decided to withhold every child’s nationality data as a result. This damages the data integrity and the educational value of any of the data collected. No one would lose anything if the whole thing were dropped.
No one has been asked any questions about misleading parliament, the profession, or public. Parents and pupils are still not told in guidance to schools, that any school census data may be passed to the Home Office for these purposes. School children’s census data continues to be handed over to the HO every month. Including explicitly to “create a hostile environment.” As a result we see:

  • Harm to children as young as 10 whose confidentiality was breached when asked for countries of origin in front of peers in the classroom, without parental consent; and pupils who were not white British were told to send in birthplace data.
  • Harm to children who have been withdrawn from education as a result. No one knows how many, but we know of some through charities supporting children since.
  • Harm to the relationship between parents and schools as sanctuaries of learning and safety
  • Harm to professional trust in politicians and policy makers
  • Harm to public trust in the legislative process and new lawmaking
  • Harm to the data integrity of the school census and “reasonably expected” other uses of data in the public interest

Action Required

The facts, purposes, and accountability for this expansion of the school census must come before the next School Census collections on October 5, 2017, and Early Years Census on January 18, 2018. The Department must stop using any pupil data for immigration enforcement purposes or they must expect further deterioration in public trust, its data collection, and damage to data integrity.

  1. Oversight required. Other Ministers gave assurances when names were first collected that government had no interest in identities. Today’s Ministers gave assurances that turned out not to be true. The scope of the use of identities from this database of over 20 million names, has shifted to secret abuse of power and public trust; causing distress to some of the most vulnerable in society. This must not be allowed to repeat at the Department for Education responsible for new FE and HE data, or across government. We need transparent oversight of ethical use of public data, used in ways we reasonably expect.
  2. Scrap it. We believe that nationality data, whilst useful at local level, need not be collected at national level on a named basis. To restore the values and human rights of education for all children, the collection should end. Any data collected without informed consent that does not therefore meet the legal obligations for retention, should be destroyed to protect schools from legal challenge, protect families and protect public trust.
  3. What about wellbeing? There is still zero visibility of how many children have been involved in direct interventions by Border Force as a result of this policy. We will never see the full extent of harms caused to children in the classroom. These School Census changes have produced some discriminatory and outright racist outcomes.

Together with Against Borders for Children, supported by Liberty, and over 20 rights organisations, we continue to campaign to end the use of pupil data for non-education purposes.
Ministers dodged the truth when they were asked last year about Home Office use before they changed the law to start collecting children’s nationality data. They intended that all this Home Office use would be kept secret. Now they must be accountable for their actions, find their humanity, and care about harms caused.
The pig-headed pursuit of foreigners’ data at all costs, is a high price to pay for statisticians, for public trust in data collections, and for the public good that should come from the use of data used well. The National Pupil Database is one of the richest education datasets in the world. It needs protected from misuse, as do the millions of children whose confidential data this is.
Transparency is a tool towards the restoration of trust. The volume of use of pupil data by the Home Office and police must be published in the DfE Third Party release register [4]. We still await and would welcome that promised step forward.
But ultimately this divisive and damaging policy must end before we can all start to rebuild full trust in the school census, in the law making process, and in government.



[1] Nick Gibb MP, Minister of State for School Standards, had denied in July 2016 that there were plans for the new data to be shared with any other Government departments in two written parliamentary questions 42842 and question 42942.
[2] Pupil numbers we have been told via FOI have been handed over to the HO to date for comparison. [LINK]  Note: returned data can be for up to the last 5 years of personal confidential data, including home and school addresses, date of birth, and full names. There is no public accountability from those responsible for the secret policy and State’s duty of care to the children taken out of education, either by Border Force or by anxious parents with or without reason to fear police or immigration enforcement.
[3] “All references to Home Office (HO) in the document refer to the work of UK Visas & Immigration, Immigration Enforcement (the work previously undertaken by the former UK Border Agency) and Border Force (BF) only and not the whole of the Home Office and its Executive Agencies.” [MOU para 1.3]
[4] The Department for Education third party release register is a list of requests for access to identifying and individual level pupil data (not anonymous statistics, but raw data released to own settings) that is collected in the school census every school term, linked with exam data, and stored in the National Pupil Database. Other users of the 23 million people’s records in the database include academics, charities, commercial businesses, data intermediaries, journalists, think tanks, other government arms-length bodies, and other government departments. [LINK to Release Register]