A controversial new government census asking schools to record pupil’s nationalities and place of birth is “dangerous and divisive” and ”smacks of racism”, MPs have ruled, as the government faces Lords opposition over the policy.
Since the start of the new academic term, schools and colleges in England have been required by the Department for Education (DfE) to ask parents for personal information including nationality, place of birth and proficiency in English.
Data protection and human rights campaigners including Liberty have likened the process to producing a “foreign children list” akin to the government's proposed controversial foreign worker lists for businesses.
Lords from across the House have agreed with campaigners in expressing fears that the information – stored on the National Pupil Database - could be exploited by immigration enforcement and third parties.
A parliamentary question answered by Education Minister Nick Gibb revealed that the Home Office requested DfE data relating to more than 2,462 individuals between July 2015 and September 2016.
Last week The Independent also revealed that a number of schools are being told to guess pupil ethnicity as part of the wider census, amid confusion from schools and local councils around official DfE guidance.
Speaking in the House of Lords on Monday, Liberal Democrat Education Spokesperson Lord Storey said the new legislation to include pupil nationality on the national database was rushed through without scrutiny during the summer recess, and littered with flaws.
Lord Storey 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.
“If this information could help them provide better educational support, that would be one thing - but the Government have failed to give any evidence that this would be the case.
“In the context of the Government’s offensive anti-immigration rhetoric, I’m extremely worried that this is just another way for them to make people who live in the UK but were born abroad feel unwelcome.”
Citing The Independent’s investigation, Lord Storey added: “There is real concern among members of different ethnic groups about victimisation and being targeted.
“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.”
The debate was triggered by a Motion of Regret, that “nationality/COB data collected under these regulations could be used to help determine a child’s immigration status”, and received support from Lords across the House.
The Earl of Clancarty added: “Parents are upset, not just about how this information might be used but because these [school census] questions are asked at all. They are fundamentally intrusive in the same way that the listing of foreign workers would be.”
Speaking to the House, Lord Nash from the Department for Eduaction said the government did “not currently understand the impact of migration on the education system”, and recorded pupil data in order to help “put the right policies in place to help these children”.
Responding to public concerns about the use of pupil data, the DfE insisted the census would only be used to collect data for the department’s own statistical analysis and would not be made available to the Home Office.
Freedom of Information data shows police forces and the Home Office have been handed information from the National Pupil Database in the past, however.
In accordance with government guidelines, schools must request census information from parents but make it clear this information is given voluntarily. If a parent chooses not to respond, this can be marked as “refused”.
Concerns have been raised however, that this information is not always being made clear – and calls have been made for a boycott of the census altogether.
Bella Sankey, Director of Policy for Liberty, one of the groups supporting the boycott, said: “The Government is starting to face a serious backlash against its poisonous ‘hostile environment’ policies. First ministers had to pull their misguided plans for foreign worker lists – now their creation of a foreign national children list could be thwarted too.
“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.”
Liberal Democrat Party spokespeople said the potential for data sharing was “deeply concerning”.
A statement read: “The Liberal Democrats and civil liberties campaigners fear the Home Office could use the database to identify foreign-born families, or match the findings to its immigration database.
“Although the Department for Education say that this information will not be accessible to the Home Office, Freedom of Information data shows police forces and the Home Office have been handed information from the National Pupil Database in the past.
“The Liberal Democrats believe this is a deeply concerning proposal, made all the more so because it was passed without any Parliamentary debate.”
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.”
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