Government scraps plans for controversial nationality census for 2-5 year-olds in humiliating U-turn

Exclusive: Collection of nationality data and country of birth will not be extended towards nursery school children, as government faces cross-party pressure to cancel 'dangerous' new legislation

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Nursery schools will no longer be forced to collect details on the nationality and birth place of children as young as two, The Independent can reveal, following a Government U-turn over the controversial school census.

Since September this year, schools, colleges and nurseries have been required to ask parents to provide details of where their children were born, as well as nationality and English language proficiency – a move MPs say has “all the hallmarks of racism”.

The new legislation, which comes as part of an expansion on the existing school census, have been met with fierce backlash from parents, campaigners and MPs, who have criticised the census as “dangerous and divisive” and raised concerns over how the information is being used.

On Wednesday The Independent reported that Government ministers planned to push ahead with collection data on pupil nationality, a move campaigners said was "deeply disappointing".

After meeting with campaign group Schools Against Border for Children (ABC), Department for Education officials said the collection of data on nationality and country of birth would not be extended towards children aged two to five, despite previous Government guidance stating the contrary

The requirement still stands for children of primary and secondary school age, however, in spite of cross-party opposition and a motion lodged by Jeremy Corbyn to block the new legislation.

Shadow Education Secretary Angela Rayner has condemned the census as it stands, criticising the Government for forcing schools to police the immigration status of children.

Responding to the Government U-turn, she said: “This entire data collection exercise has been mired in controversy due to the department’s ham-fisted and rushed-through changes. “They have completely failed to inspire any confidence that this census information would be used appropriately to maintain its integrity. 

“Schools are central to cohesive and happy communities and should not be used as a border force for the Government. This is welcome news, our hope is that they extend it across the board.” 

It is understood the U-turn decision to retract nationality collection for Early Years came on Wednesday, amid mounting pressure from campaign groups and negative media attention.

Admitting the change of plan, Department for Education officials said Education Secretary Justine Greening had disagreed with the proposals set out by her predecessor Nicky Morgan to expand data collection.

A spokesperson said: “At this time we see no need to extend the collection of data on nationality or country of birth to the Early Years census or the Alternative Provision Census.”

Schools Against Borders coordinator, Gracie Mae Bradley, said the U-turn marked a significant victory for campaigners against the census.

She said: “This is a brilliant outcome for all of the children, teachers and parents who have been in touch with the ABC campaign to express their dismay at the government's divisive attempts to draw up lists of foreign children. 

“While it's a worrying sign of the times that the collection of immigration data on two-five year-olds was ever on the table, we're glad the DfE has seen sense and decided that it is totally unnecessary to label children in this way before they can even speak.”

Ms Bradley warned the government still had far to go, however, in ensuring that pupil data was adequately protected. The group will continue to fight against the collection of nationality data for pupils of any age. 

“This U-turn raises serious questions about why nationality or country of birth data should be collected about any child at all,” she added, “especially if its security can't be guaranteed. 

“Why persist with this damaging idea that it's OK to label older pupils as migrants first and children second? Teachers are not border guards, and hopefully this initial concession will give the government serious cause to consider halting the data collection entirely.”

In an open letter to MPs, the 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.

Government's controversial school census to record pupil nationality 'has all the hallmarks of racism' Lords warn

Human rights group Liberty is one of a number who have signed in support of the boycott. Director of policy for the organisation said: “In recent months we have seen migrant communities vilified and treated as bargaining chips. Instead of sowing yet more division and mistrust, we urge the Lords to uphold the safety and dignity of children and send a message to Government that this divisive and unnecessary policy must scrapped.”

Others have warned the Government’s pupil database “puts children at risk of racial profiling”, though the DfE has insisted that any information on nationality, ethnicity or otherwise would only be stored for the department’s own analysis and records.

The growing 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.

The rushed legislation has led to widespread confusion and incorrect information being shared, with some schools demanding parents provide passports to prove their children are not asylum seekers.

Others were advised by local councils to guess pupil ethnicity if parents did not provide the relevent information.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waded into the debate this week, tabling a motion to cancel the new laws forcing schools to collect the data, on the basis that the matter was not debated in the House of Commons. 

Under parliamentary procedure, the early day motion can be used to revoke legislation if enough support is gained from MPs. 

So far the motion has gained 13 signatures, including Mr Corbyn, Green Party MP Caroline Lucas and Ms Rayner.

Debating the matter in Parliament earlier this month, Lords rejected the census, with Lib Dem education spokesman Lord Storey warning that the introduction of nationality data collection had “all the hallmarks of racism” and risked alienating young children based on their ethnicity.

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.

Crossbench peer the Earl of Clancarty added that questions on birthplace were “fundamentally intrusive in the same way that listing foreign workers might be”.

A DfE spokesperson said: “Gathering data on nationality and country of birth through the School Census will help ensure our children receive the best possible education and support. 

“It will help us understand the scale and impact of migration on the education sector.”