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.