by Leah Cowan

My Dad always encouraged me to mark whatever box I wanted on diversity monitoring forms.

‘What they really want to know,’ he’d say, his eyes twinkling, ‘is the shade of your skin. Or your mother’s skin. Or your grandmother’s skin’.

As a mixed race white British and black British Caribbean child, my identity was hard to reduce to a tick box. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) continues to assert that I can be ‘mixed’, sure, but that the blackness of my mix surely cannot be in any sense British.

So it was with some interest that I learnt that in May 2016, the UK government announced that schools and other education institutions are now obliged to collect country of birth and nationality data on pupils aged 2-19. At first glance this move might appear fairly innocuous – after all, equality data collection helps assess needs and resource provision to schools…right?

Diversity monitoring or equalities data collection is certainly a fraught subject area. The taxonomising of people of colour; people of different ‘ethnicities’, into succinct categories that can be monitored, administered and supposedly boosted through quotas and schemes, often feels like a band aid for a bullet wound. Diversity is palatable, whereas genuine efforts to address and redress the root causes of structural racism; transatlantic slavery and colonisation – ‘de-colonisation’- digs a little deeper in its intentions, and for some individuals and institutions drives a little too close to the bone.

However, having wound my way through a few different charity and NGO jobs, I’ve seen how collecting equalities data can help to shed light on under-representation. These stats can be utilised as a powerful lobbying tool to those who gate-keep the purse strings of both private trusts and public money.

But the thing is, nationality and country of birth data is already gathered through the National Census. So what’s the new data collection for? Cue alarm bells.

The government has expressly stated that the purpose of this new activity is to help the Department for Education ‘assess and monitor the scale and impact immigration may be having on the schools sector’, in the context of an effort to investigate ‘education tourism’; for the first time ever linking a child’s nationality, country of birth, and name and address at national level. A Freedom of Information (FOI) Act request revealed that School Census data is already being shared with the Home Office (on 18 occasions since 2012) and the police (on 31 occasions since 2012), and that third parties such as newspapers have also been granted access. An open letter, signed by over 20 human rights groups including Liberty, the Refugee Council and Privacy International was sent earlier this week to the Department for Education, calling for the data collection to be reversed.

As yet, no response has been forthcoming. This shouldn’t be surprising. Data-sharing has become the bedrock of the ‘hostile environment’ that the then-Home Secretary, now Prime Minister, Theresa May promised to create for undocumented migrants in the UK. As the Guardian reports, in 2013 the government mooted the idea of excluding all undocumented children from school; abandoning the idea only when reminded that this would breach the UK’s obligations under human rights law. May has ushered in two successive Immigration Bills that have sought to transform a wide variety of ordinary people into de facto border guards: from landlords and bank clerks, to educators and healthcare professionals. Concurrently, immigration raids in London have increased by 80% since 2011, and high profile cases have exposed the entrapment of migrant workers by the Home Office in collusion with large corporate businesses such as Byron Burgers and Tesco.

In a recent development, parents in the county of Brighton and Hove have received letters from the City Council stating that they have the right to refuse to supply immigration data to their child’s school, but that ‘where an ethnicity has not been stated or ‘refused’ the Head teacher has the right to “ascribe” an ethnicity to your child’.


Brighton & Hove City Council’s response to requests for clarification stated that immigration data is ‘used for curriculum planning and targeting support’ and that ethnicity ascription is ‘based on Department of Education guidance’. A November 2000 Consultation on Guidance for Schools on Ethnic Monitoring states that ascribing must be done by ‘the member of staff who knows the pupil best (probably their class or form teacher), who is therefore able to make the most accurate judgement possible’.

It’s been a bad year for state-imposed racial profiling in schools in the UK. The 2015 ‘Prevent’ guidelines, which obliged schools to ‘have due regard for the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism’, resulted in a range of human rights violations being perpetrated against children – disproportionately those who are Muslim or perceived to be Muslim – in in the name of national security. Encouraging and obliging teachers to racially profile their pupils or to make guesses about their ethnicity is unlikely to foster a harmonious environment for learning. My hunch is: that’s precisely the intention.

Parents are not legally obliged to provide immigration data to schools, and evidently schools may adopt various approaches to refusals. However, this initial right of refusal is not being uniformly communicated. This is unsurprising. Time and time again immigration enforcement relies on people lacking information about their rights and obligations – whether that’s in a ‘stop and search’ or an immigration raid.

The new immigration data requirement is, unfortunately, another brick in the metaphorical wall that the Home Office is building (in additional to a physical £1.9m wall in Calais) to try and stop migrant communities living full and equal lives. We must call this data collection out for what it is: in practice an obstacle to children’s learning, and more broadly a strong message that migrant communities are under scrutiny. Find out how you can join the boycott and help protect the rights of all migrant children at / @schools_abc.

Featured photo via

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Leah Cowan is a writer and immigration detention abolition activist, who can be found on Twitter and Instagram: @la_cowan

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