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Why does the government want to know your child’s nationality?

Schools are now required to collect data on their pupils’ places of birth – but the government still hasn’t explained what for.

On 1 September, it became a legal requirement that schools collect data on the nationality and country of birth of their pupils. More than three months later, we still don’t exactly know why.

Although a handful of campaigners and journalists had been banging on about the changes to the school census and national pupil database for several months, most people only noticed when a few schools went rogue and started demanding pupils’ passports.

The government’s excuse was that it needed the information to better target specialist language support, despite information on the languages spoken by pupils being collected separately. Flimsy as the excuse was, it is now almost completely redundant after cabinet letters leaked to the BBC uncovered a plot by the government to use schools to conduct immigration checks.

It makes more sense that the collection of nationality and country of birth data was a compromise brokered to keep then home secretary Theresa May happy after Nicky Morgan, education secretary at the time, kicked off about the immigration check plans last year, but there is still an important piece of the puzzle missing. 

It all started back in June, when proposed changes to the school census were first revealed. The Department for Education made the claim about language support, and people started to worry.

But it wasn’t until September that we discovered from leaked House of Lords documents that the requirement to collect children’s nationality data had been rushed through Parliament during the summer recess without debate.

By late September, the data collection was national news. Schools, gearing up for the data collection on 6 October, had started writing to families asking for information, and some were less sensitive than others in how they handled the government’s request. Some schools demanded copies of birth certificates, passport numbers and, in some cases, details of asylum status – none of which is required under the changes to rules.

These problems were caused by a combination of vague government guidance for schools and mistakes by school leaders – we cannot entirely blame the government for a move by one school to target its enquiries solely at the parents of non-white pupils, for example – but all contributed to a significant breakdown in trust between parents and schools.

Something must now be done to rebuild this trust. The collection and use of pupil data by schools is vital for ensuring resources are targeted at the right places and understanding where schools are supporting learners from different backgrounds, and where they are failing to do so. But there is a very real danger that this scandal could put the collection of that vital data under threat.

This is where the “memorandum of understanding” between the DfE and the Home Office comes into play. At least, it would, if it definitely existed. We first heard about the agreement in October, when the DfE told me that a new one had been signed to specifically prevent the sharing of nationality and country of birth data with other departments.

The old agreement, which allowed the Home Office and police to obtain information on where a child already known to them goes to school or lives (which is also contentious, but a separate issue) had been “superseded”, the Department said, but its replacement was not forthcoming.

Almost two months later, and even after the Information Commissioner’s Office has written to the government urging it to respond to my Freedom of Information request, the DfE still won’t show the document. Its response is more than 20 working days late. Not that I’m counting.

Attempts by opposition peers to get hold of the agreement have also failed. John Nash, the academies minister, told the House of Lords on 31 October that the document would be released “shortly”, but it still hasn’t appeared.

We shouldn’t pretend, however, that the release of the agreement will put everyone’s fears about the way this data is used to bed. The concern of campaigners is that a memorandum of understanding has no legal footing, and as such can be changed at any point without consultation or publicity. The DfE could start passing pupil nationality data to the Home Office tomorrow if it wanted to, and we would be none the wiser.

Ministers have said they don’t want to enshrine such an agreement in law, so there is only one option left: to stop collecting the data and destroy what they already have.

In the meantime, it is important to emphasise that parents are under no legal obligation to provide information about their child’s nationality or country birth. The legal duty of schools only goes as far as to require them to attempt to get the information, but they can record in the census that it has been refused and won’t risk a penalty for an incomplete submission.

Schools should be making parents aware of their right to refuse to provide this information, and parents should be exercising it until there is a valid reason for its collection and adequate safeguards are in place to prevent it from being shared. Without such safeguards in place, this is a divisive policy that puts parents’ faith in our education system at risk.

Freddie Whittaker is Schools Week’s political reporter.

Photo: Getty
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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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