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International Migrants Day 2022: DfE has handed over 1,780 pupils to the Home Office

On International Migrants Day 2022 we remind readers in solidarity that the Department for Education (DfE) has an ongoing live collaborative arrangement with the Home Office to hand over matched pupil data. The Departments takes no public accountability for what happens to children or their families as a result.


The most recent DfE release about pupil data distribution (December 2022)  shows that between July 2015 (when the arrangement began in secret) until September 2022, the Home Office (HO) has requested the DfE find and match the personal details of nearly seven thousand people (6,883) and has returned matched data for one thousand seven hundred and eighty (1, 780) individuals, in the national pupil database.

This repurposing of educational records has become normalised by the Department. Crucially when it comes to the outcome of the policy, neither the DfE nor the Home Office demonstrates any accountability for what happens to children and their families as a result.

When the collaboration began in July 2015,  details supplied from the HO Casework Information Database (CID) and passed to the DfE would include: Surname, Middle Name (if known), Forename, Address including Post Code, Gender (if known), Date of Birth, Nationality and CID PER ID, and would be in the region of 1,500 individuals in any given month. The agreement also, and separately, already set out in writing that the DfE would hand over “(Once collected) nationality” data. (see 15.2.6). It was this expansion to start collecting nationality from schools, that gave the arrangement away. But while public outrage and campaigning stopped the collection of nationality data in 2018, and we were later successful in getting that nationality data destroyed, no one should forget that the DfE is still misusing pupil data monthly, for the purposes of the Hostile Environment.

It seemed a regular data expansion like any other to the Star Chamber Scrutiny Board, whose members at the DfE approved the change starting from October 2016. The purpose and reason given was: “Whilst the department collects limited information on children who have moved into the English education system from abroad, the collected information is insufficient to ascertain the impact that such entrants have on the education system. The introduction of these data items will assist in the identification of such pupils and may facilitate the targeting of support to such pupils.” We later spoke to members of the Star Chamber who told us that they were not aware of the HO agreement and would have refused the census expansion had they known. In 2017 after a year-long refusal to release the minutes, notes from the minutes of this meeting were given to us via FOI. The fact that the Home Office agreement was omitted in the explanation given to the Board that signed off a national data expansion when its real intent was hidden, is deeply concerning, and has to-date never been publicly addressed by the DfE or the Board.

But adding nationality to the school census was not only about a statistical data expansion or understanding ‘impact’ at all. Behind closed doors in 2015, the government had discussed Hostile Environment expansion plans to deprioritise migrants in the school admissions process, and carry out “immigration checks through schools”, only revealed in December 2016 after the school census became a public scandal. “One source says every department was to have its hands “dipped in blood”. “

In July 2016, the Schools Minister Nick Gibb MP, had denied that the new data would be shared with other Government departments in a written parliamentary question 42842. In another parliamentary question 42942, he said, “There are currently no plans for the Department to change the existing protocols and processes for the handling and disclosure of confidential information.” While perhaps strictly true, he failed to admit that existing pupil data was already being handed over monthly, even while denying plans to share the nationality data due to start being collected barely 90 days later. The statements he made were misleading intentionally or otherwise, but this has never been admitted or clarified to Parliament.

Only on August 1, 2016 in answer our FOI request ref: 2016-0032573 did the DfE first reveal data sharing with the Home Office from the 23 million records in the National Pupil Database. It said there had only been 18 data sharing requests. The volume of Home Office requests, each time, adding up to over 2,500 individuals, was kept hidden and was only revealed later through our follow-up FOI released on October 31, 2016. It is important to say that the numbers are not disaggregated between, “cases within these requests are i) dependant(s) of a parent/guardian who is suspected of an offence under section 24 or 24A of the Immigration Act 1971 or section 35 of the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants) Act 2004 has been, or is being committed, or ii) the child in question is an unaccompanied minor and the Home Office has lost contact with the child giving rise to concerns over their wellbeing.” But the purposes stated in the data-sharing agreement are far more about the former (see 15.1.2).

In September 2016, the campaign Against Borders for Children (ABC) was launched by concerned teaching staff, parents, and children’s-, migrants-, and human rights supporters. Over 20 rights organisations under the ABC campaign umbrella, wrote to the Secretary of State to call for the census expansion to be scrapped and urged a boycott by parents and schools. It was highly successful. When the first census collection in October 2016 included nationality data, over a quarter of schools had declined to return it, together with refusals by parents.

In September 2016, shockingly the Department was still claiming in BBC that ‘these data will not be passed to the Home Office.’ By then, perhaps the Department had agreed to take the nationality data out of the Home Office agreement and “these data” meaning nationality and country-of-birth was strictly speaking true. Media reporting directed outrage at the nationality data alone, a problem that then seemed solved. It hid the fact that the Department responsible for education and policy on children’s safeguarding-in-schools had already begun to shop them to the Home Office for purposes including furthering the aims of the Hostile Environment, without democratic mandate or transparent oversight, and was continuing to do so a year after it began in secret.

In seven years (2015-22) the UK Home Office has asked for 6,883 school pupils’ details from national pupil records. The DfE has handed over 1,780 pupils names, home addresses up to the last 5 years and much more. In 2020, The Public Accounts Committee found that the Home Office “has no idea” of the impact of immigration policies. The same seems true of the DfE collaboration. When asked, the Home Office could not answer the question what happens to children or families as a result of receiving national pupil data monthly. Caroline Lucas MP asked the Home Office about the impact of using pupil data from the DfE but both Departments declined to release this. (Link to PQ 92745) Chris Philp, then Parliamentary Under-Secretary at the Home Office replied, “The specific information you have requested is not readily available and could only be obtained at disproportionate cost.”

We continue to call on the Department for Education to end the use of pupil data for Home Office immigration control measures in this arrangement, that go beyond protecting the health and safety of children. We believe this surveillance-at-scale is a misuse of data collected for the purposes of education in local schools, searching 9 million national records to match and find a few, and that this practice breaches data protection law, including first principles of purpose limitation. We believe that the ICO, the data regulator should have enforced against this in its 2020 audit at the DfE. We are still waiting for the outcomes of the audit to be published nearly three years later, and are now pursuing action with our legal team. We welcome your support.

You can read the full chronology of these events in detail, from July 2015 until today in our #BoycottSchoolCensus timeline.

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