New ‘Nationality’ Queries in School Census: What Does This Mean?

Parents have taken to Twitter to condemn the ‘sinister’ addition to this year’s School Census; the DfE has denied any divisive intentions.

Thursday, 6th October was the deadline for this term’s census, but many were shocked whilst completing the document, by the inclusion of new questions, which asked parents for their child’s nationality and country of birth. Previously the censuses asked only for the child’s ethnicity (White British, Asian, etc.).

The new census also includes a question regarding proficiency in English. The DfE guide to the census, available since September this year, can be read here (the relevant sections are 5.3.3–5).

Since 2007 it has been a statutory requirement for all schools in England to provide data towards the School Census. The compulsory data collections are made three times a year.

The additional questions this year have perhaps drawn special controversy owing to Amber Rudd’s widely debated proposal to force businesses to declare the proportion of foreign workers they employ. This policy, part of a broader plan to curb net migration, has been seen as divisive or even racist, though a recent YouGov poll revealed that a majority of the British public are in favour of it.

Many parents have taken the aims of the School Census questions on nationality and country of birth to be on the same lines.

There were particular worries around the alleged targeting of non-white pupils at certain schools, with some parents fearing that sensitive data could be passed on to the Home Office, though it was confirmed by school leaders that this would not happen.

Many wanted to emphasize that there was an opt-out clause for parents (though not for schools) in the legislation, which they said had not been made sufficiently clear by school leaders.

A template letter of protest was posted online, asserting parents’ right to refuse the information and arguing that the new questions could lead to ‘foreign national children being classed as “different” or as a drain on public resources.’

It is a well-known argument that immigration makes it harder to find a place at a good local school, and many are concerned that the government’s changes to the School Census could fan these flames, or even that the data taken could be used to justify future policy on immigration.

Such concerns gathered momentum when it was remembered that Nicky Morgan commissioned an investigation last year into whether increasing immigration levels could be linked to ‘education tourism.’ This investigation is currently dormant.

The DfE have denied that the data collected would be used in any such fact-finding mission, or that it would be passed to civil servants, and asserted that its purpose was to assess the educational opportunities available to pupils from other countries, rather than to look into the impacts of immigration on the school system.

However, the project instigated last year by Nicky Morgan, though believed to have been shelved, will, in fact, be blended into a large-scale report by Louise Casey on the impact of migrants on communities in the UK, as well as the ‘opportunity and integration’ of migrant groups. Jen Perrson, of DefendDigitalMe, queried the need for new data about the nationalities of pupils since the Office for National Statistics already collects such information.

The wording of the document itself also calls into question DfE’s assertion:

‘This new information…will allow the Department to measure whether the individual pupils or the schools they attend face additional educational challenges.’

This seems to suggest that the use of the data will, in fact, be a two-way street: it is geared to measuring the impact on schools, and not just on the individual foreign nationals.

With the census now closed, it will be interesting to note what proportion of parents provided the requested data, and how many exercised their right to refuse. Despite the government’s assurances, it seems from the policy wording that there is scope for subversive use of these data, and this looks all the more likely given the tone of the Conservative party conference last week.