Children in a line, outside the classroom door with their passport in hand, waiting one by one to be checked and let in. Teachers checking pupils’ passports, one by one, wondering when the right to free education started being determined by nationality and place of birth.
This is not the start to a dystopian novel. This was the original vision of the Home Secretary in 2015, as revealed in leaked cabinet letters, for teachers to conduct immigration checks in the classroom.
As part of the hostile environment master plan, immigration checks in schools were to be deployed to de-prioritise the children of undocumented migrants for school places.
As this first plan didn’t gain sufficient consensus, the government folded and opted for a simpler and less ‘in the open’ option: collecting pupils’ nationality and country of birth data via the school census.
‘Refuse, Retract, Resist’
In 2016, a prolonged battle for Freedom of Information, with the support of DefendDigitalMe, uncovered the Department for Education’s (DfE) plans to share details of pupils’ nationalities and home addresses, collected through the census, with the Home Office for immigration enforcement.
When this revelation came to light, we – Against Borders for Children – had been campaigning for an end to the nationality and country of birth data collection for some months. Against Borders for Children is a collective of parents, educators and campaigners dedicated to fighting government schemes to introduce the hostile environment in the classroom.
Image credit: School books/ Photo by Kimberly Farmer on Unsplash
We began our campaign because we did not believe that in the context of a hostile environment, the Government could be trusted with children’s nationalities and countries of birth. The exposure of the plan to share data between the DfE and the Home Office confirmed our worst fears.
Our campaign motto ‘refuse, retract, resist’ summarises the different actions Against Borders for Children engaged in while combating the government plans to infiltrate schools with the hostile environment agenda.
Stand Up Against Discrimination
One of our core actions was to invite parents to stand up against this divisive and discriminatory process by refusing to provide the data relating to nationality and place of birth.
Although schools had a duty to request nationality and country of birth data, parents had the right to refuse to give it. We can’t emphasise the collective nature of our campaign enough.
With the help of print-outs available on our website, a coalition of over 20 supportive human rights NGOs, wide sharing of the campaign on social media and through working closely with local and national organisations engaged in direct work with parents and families, our message kept spreading.
This lead to a significant decrease in the data collection numbers, with over 200,000 families refusing to share their data and the DfE failing to obtain data on two million children.
Image credit: © Wasi Daniju 2019 Schools ABC at DfE
Taking The Government To Court
With big help from our friends, at the end of 2017 we successfully fundraised sufficient funds to take legal action against the DfE, represented by Liberty, to challenge the clear violation of human rights through the data collection and sharing of pupils’ nationality and place of birth.
While we had thought that the collection of funds would have been the hardest part, we quickly realised the challenges were elsewhere. After a nerve-wracking wait, in March 2018 we were informed that the High Court had decided to halt our legal challenge against the DfE.
Following over a year of victories and success, this felt like a slap in the face. But in the end, it turned out we had the DfE on the run. It announced in April 2018 that it would no longer require schools to collect nationality and country of birth data.
Hostile Environment Policies Amounted To ‘Public Child Abuse’
While we surely celebrate this victory, we are also aware that there is more to do. We are still urging all parents to retract their children’s data. We are pursuing an Information Commissioner Officer’s complaint to get the nationality/country of birth data deleted, and to stop the address data-sharing.
We believe the intrusive, discriminatory and opaque nature of the architecture built through the policies and processes of the hostile environment is systematic ‘public child abuse’. These policies are actively normalising the policing and discrimination of children on the basis of their ethnicity and background, alongside promoting mutual suspicion, fear and ultimately the blaming of the ‘other’ for all society’s ills.
Divide et impera (divide and conquer), the war maxim so dear to the Ruthless Romans is back in fashion thanks to the hostile environment.
It is our responsibility and aim to continue fighting until the hostile environment is out of children’s lives.
We will keep fighting for a school system that focuses on a brighter future built on social justice and rights for all children, and we will keep reminding the Government that our place of birth is simply Planet Earth.