Parents can choose not to be complicit in building border controls in our playgrounds – and so can schools, says Martha Spurrier.

The spring school census started this week. For the second time this academic year, parents and guardians have been asked to share their children’s nationalities and countries of birth with the state – another seemingly innocuous tick-box on another official-looking government form.

But parents aren’t legally obliged to hand over this information. And – if they believe classrooms should be about learning, growth and hope for the future rather than fear and division – they absolutely should not.

This is not an attempt by the government to better acquaint itself with the educational needs of our children

The intentions behind this new data-harvesting are about as sinister as they get. This is not an attempt by the government to better acquaint itself with the educational needs of our children. It is, and always has been, a thinly veiled bid to aid Home Office deportation, to bring border controls into our classrooms by building “foreign children lists”.

When parents were first asked for this information in the autumn, campaigners immediately saw the move for what it was – the latest divisive policy from a government bent on building a border on every street and a prime minister who, as home secretary, farmed immigration control powers out to everyone from employers, banks and NHS workers to landlords and police.

But the Department for Education (DfE) insisted the information was needed to assess “the scale and impact immigration may be having on the schools sector”, and that it “would not be passed to the Home Office” and was “solely for internal DfE use”.

Sadly a string of leaks have since laid the government’s true motivations bare. It emerged the current approach was born from Theresa May’s previous plan to force schools to demand passports and withdraw places from children whose parents could not provide sufficient documentation. That idea was resisted by her Cabinet colleagues at the time – but this compromise is its toxic legacy.

Last month a leaked data-sharing agreement revealed the DfE had agreed to give the personal details of up to 1,500 school children a month to the Home Office, specifically to “create a hostile environment”. The government has insisted nationality and birth country data won’t be included. But other census data is routinely disclosed, and there’s no law to stop this happening in future.

Pupils will be kept at home because parents fear deportation

This grubby scheme is no less than a secret programme, smuggled in by the back door with the explicit aim of helping to deport innocent children and their families. Pupils will be kept at home because their parents fear this deportation.

After a divisive year, these irresponsible measures risk victimising children and lead to more division, discrimination and fear. We’ve already seen this is motion – schools demanding copies of passports and asking parents to confirm whether their child is a refugee or asylum seeker.

Inadequate DfE guidance has left many schools, parents and pupils confused about what they do and don’t have to legally provide, which is why Liberty and Against Borders for Children wrote to every head in England on Monday asking them to inform parents of their right to refuse.

Schools must make it clear that there is no legal obligation for parents to provide their children’s country of birth and nationality. They also have the right to withdraw that data if they gave it in the autumn.

But all is not lost. While all signs point to us no longer being able to trust the government to protect children’s rights and foster cohesion, the census gives us a chance to stand against the sowing of division in our communities.

Every child on our shores has a right to education. That right is not dependent on their background or their place of birth. Schools are places where children should feel safe to learn and grow; they should not be a source of information on their parents or a target for immigration enforcement.

Liberty’s message to parents is clear: refuse, retract, resist. If enough do so – regardless of where their children were born – the government won’t be able to keep justifying this shameful policy’s existence.

 

Martha Spurrier is director of Liberty