Gracie Mae Bradley: Time for the Lords to stand up to government plans for ‘foreign children lists’

31 October 2016

Gracie Mae Bradley
Gracie Mae Bradley is the co-founder of Against Borders for Children. Here she blogs about the campaign and why the Government must stop the expansion of border control powers into children’s school lives.

 

When we launched the Against Borders for Children (ABC) campaign last month, we had one goal: to make the Department for Education (DfE) scrap its new policy to draw up lists of foreign children through the School Census and Early Years Census.

In a debate taking place today, the House of Lords have the chance to help make that happen.

The new data collection was quietly announced last May, and places a duty on schools to ask for nationality and country of birth information from 8 million pupils aged 2-19, and submit it to the National Pupil Database (NPD).

Scraping the barrel of morality

The purpose of the policy is apparently to help the DfE ‘assess the scale and impact of pupil migration in the education sector’, following Nicky Morgan’s call in 2015 for a review of ‘education tourism’.

As we know from similar conversations around the NHS, what normally follows an investigation into ‘[insert public good/service here] tourism’, is a crackdown, whatever the evidence. That’s what set alarm bells ringing for parents, teachers, and human rights organisations when we first caught wind of this.

We were initially concerned data from the NPD might be accessed by the Home Office and used for immigration enforcement purposes, just as we’ve seen with health records. And some of us still remember that, in 2013, civil servants and ministers went so far as to discuss excluding children with insecure immigration status from school. At the time, John McDonnell said it was ‘scraping the barrel of morality’ and the proposals were eventually scrapped.

Chaotic

These new foreign children lists have been introduced in a post-Brexit climate of rising hate crime.

To make matters worse, the data collection has been chaotic. ABC has evidence to show schools have repeatedly failed to inform parents of their right to refuse to answer census questions on nationality and country of birth.

Teachers are angry they have been co-opted into surveilling children and families in a place where they should feel safe, and the National Union of Teachers has felt compelled to release a statement reminding the Government that ‘schools are not part of policing immigration.'

Marking pupils as migrant first, child second

In October this year, Amber Rudd faced a backlash when she suggested firms would be forced to draw up lists of foreign workers. Parents have been similarly up in arms about this list of foreign children, and have made their dismay known publicly.

But the same can’t be said of the opposition. The Labour Party has said comparatively little, having seemingly failed to see the irony of running a campaign against grammar schools under the slogan #EducationNotSegregation, while remaining almost silent on this divisive policy that marks certain pupils as migrants first and children second.

In the meantime, non-white children have been told to ‘prove’ they are not an asylum seeker or refugee. Kids with ‘foreign’-sounding names have been handed letters or summoned to reception to discuss their origins. Children have had their identity documents demanded by schools. Fortunately, criticism from the Liberal Democrats has been vocal and sustained.

No safe place for children’s data

The NPD is no safe place for children’s data. Our initial concerns about Home Office access have turned into well-founded fears.

Over the last month, parliamentary questions and Freedom of Information responses have revealed it has repeatedly accessed the NPD for immigration enforcement purposes over the last four years – potentially to track down parents through their children.

We found out only last Friday that, between July 2015 and September 2016, the Home Office asked the DfE for the personal details of almost 2,500 children.

Boycott the school census

Until recently, the DfE had tried to maintain it does not share children’s data with other government departments, and that new nationality and country of birth data will be ‘solely for internal [DfE] use.

Following revelations, and in response to our campaign, Lord Nash has reportedly written to peers claiming nationality and country of birth data is too sensitive to be stored in the NPD, and will instead be kept elsewhere – destination as yet unknown.

What this amounts to is two tacit admissions. First, that the DfE is drawing up secret lists of foreign children – which, given the flimsiness of previous assurances, may well be accessible to the Home Office.

Second, that kids’ names, addresses, school details and other sensitive data will remain in an NPD that is not fit for purpose, with information shared with the Home Office and other departments without parental consent, sometimes for ends that are not in a child’s best interests.

We have the right to go to school and feel safe. Boycott the School Census.”

That’s the clarion call from a group of young migrant women and girls who earlier this month made a film asking parents to exercise their right to refuse to give nationality and country of birth information to schools.

Let’s hope peers of all parties and none hear them loud and clear this afternoon, and send the Government a strong signal about its damaging and disingenuous attempts to bring border controls into the classroom.