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“Let the little children come to me” – the school census boycott

Jen Persson is coordinator of defenddigitalme, one of over twenty human rights organisations supporting the Against Borders for Children campaign to #BoycottSchoolCensus. Schools ABC is a coalition of parents, teachers, schools and campaigners which aims to reverse the Department of Education’s (DfE) policy, effective from September 2016, to collect country of birth and nationality information on all 8 million children in state education in England three times a year. Parents can retract the data submitted in autumn and refuse to provide the optional data. There is no sanction for parents or schools that may return the completed data using not yet obtained or refused.

abc-vertical-larger-margins“In the Christmas story, the census when Quirinius was governor of Syria is little more than a backdrop. We hear little about what came next; the Massacre of the Innocents under King Herod. But as school staff and pupils are heading back to start a new term, and the nativity costumes have been put away for another year, we suggest it’s time to talk about what happens next in our contemporary census story. The state school census of all children in England.

The night before the Christmas holidays, the Department for Education finally unwrapped their Memorandum of Understanding with the Home Office Removals Casework Team, on the use of children’s confidential personal data collected in schools. They’ve been handing over children’s names, gender, date of birth, home address and school address going back five years, for up to 1,500 pupils a month since July 2015. It also confirms that the new pupil nationality data to be collected from every child since September 2016, was for the Home Office, despite Ministers comments to the contrary.

The public position has been ‘these data will not be passed to the Home Office, and when asked, Education Ministers didn’t mention the agreement already in place to hand it over, which was changed on October 7th. Transparency was forced through parliamentary questions, scrutiny and a motion of regret in the House of Lords with support from over 20 rights organisations. Cabinet Office letters leaked to the BBC revealed in December, that asking for additional personal data from autumn 2016 — country of birth, nationality and more detailed language data — was part of compromise of measures.

It has been neither confirmed or denied since, that the new nationality data is being used in the search terms in the Home Office hunt, and there is no future bar on handing it over.

This compromised census collection has been compounded by schools’ bad practice and been far reaching in its harmful effects. Schools fail to process fairly, or communicate to parents it is optional. Pupils have been taken aside and questioned, without parental permission.

There have been ascribing issues, divisive classroom collection, racial profiling including telling only non-white British children to bring in their passports and Headteachers told by councils to overrule parents’ right to decline. The resulting Against Borders for Children national boycott calls on everyone to ignore the questions.

The government has now said it will permit the removal of nationality data collected that parents want to retract, but parents don’t seem to know they can take it back, and schools are still asking for the new data for the 19th January spring school census, repeating the problems of the autumn.

Parents and school staff should start 2017 by supporting the #BoycottSchoolCensus campaign, rejecting the nationality data collection.

The new data are not for the benefit of children, for their well being, or educational purposes. It not only infringes on the human rights of the few, but on all our privacy, on family life, and the new use policy reduces humanity to them and us, and demeans our British values. It undermines public trust in politicians and Department reputation. Undermines professional trust in the purposes of future census data expansion, and the integrity of all data collected in schools, not to mention wider data initiatives and national statistics.

The ethical question of what can be done by the State using our children’s school records in secret and without our consent should concern every one of us. If our children’s personal data can be used to bully migrants without transparency, what else can it be used for and how will we know? What else is still secret?

How can we seek redress for bad decisions or avoid punitive data uses harming public benefit, such as public health? Given the potential for error already recognised in other areas of the hostile environment policy, transparency, oversight and accountability matter.

According to the BBC, May wanted departments to contribute to the government’s ambition to reduce immigration. For Education, that has meant going after the children. Whitehall Departments are doing the Home Office’s dirty work. A source told the BBC every department was to have its hands “dipped in blood”.

Let’s remember how the Christmas story ended. What happened to the local children after the census. What happened after the foreigners had been told to go home by another way. The whole community suffered. The school census expansion has lost all legitimacy. Ministers need to rethink and scrap it before the next collection on January 19.”

20m_finalJen Persson.

Jen is coordinator of defenddigitalme, which campaigns for children’s privacy rights and improved transparency in policy and practice with regard to national pupil data in England. She can be found on Twitter via @TheABB or the campaign @defenddigitalme

Defend Digital Me – the campaign to ask the Department of Education to change policy and practice on the personal data of 20 million children on the national database.


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