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School Census: Pupils’ Nationality

Volume 774: debated on Wednesday 12 October 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government for what purpose they intend to use the information ascertained from the newly introduced question in the school census on pupils’ nationality.

My Lords, we will use information on pupils’ nationality and country of birth to understand how we can give all pupils a better education that caters to their individual needs. If there are people whose first language is not English, we will be able to see how well they are doing and how we can help their school to contribute meaningfully to raising pupils’ outcomes. These new data are solely for the DfE to use in research, statistics and analysis.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that parents are appalled by the introduction of these questions on nationality and place of birth, which have nothing to do with a good education? Is he further aware that a freedom of information request has revealed that the Home Office has frequently used the pupil database for immigration purposes? Does he not therefore agree that these questions are on the same level of intrusiveness as listing foreign workers, and should be removed from the census?

My Lords, the census covers a range of things, and we should be aware that children of foreign nationals can face additional challenges upon starting school in the UK. They are not likely to speak English fluently and may not have been here for the full school choice or application round, so they are more frequently placed in schools that, ideally, they would not choose. The education system they have arrived from may be different from the English system, so they may be behind our expected standards simply because they have yet to cover elements of our curriculum. Understanding nationalities helps us to put the right policies in place to help those children, and there are safeguards in place.

Can my noble friend confirm that the number of children with English as their second language has risen from 6% to 16% in one year?

I will need to confirm those exact figures to my noble friend in writing, but I suspect that that is the case. That lies behind the need to ensure that we look after those pupils effectively and support the teaching profession, which often has to deal with a range of nationalities in the classroom, with all the challenges that that brings.

My Lords, the noble Lord carefully said “may” in respect of these children’s potential to require special support. There is another way to look at this, which is that a lot of children of foreign nationals are extremely well able to take advantage of the education being offered to them here—for example, many of them are bilingual, which is helpful to them and their peers. Does he not agree that even an appearance of an us-and-them way of segregating different kinds of children within our schools is really unhelpful at this time? Whether or not the information is being used appropriately, it gives a most unfortunate impression.

I have to disagree with the noble Baroness, because we believe that adding items on nationality and country of birth as well as English proficiency will be helpful and will be used better to understand how children perform, whether they are bilingual or whether they have come with English as an additional language. It is right and proper that we introduce this assessment; it better enables us to monitor immigration issues within this country.

My Lords, as a long-time school principal, perhaps I may expand the Question a little and ask whether the Government are aware of the dangers of either the census or questionnaires. When I asked a Question about Brighton and Hove Council asking five and six year-old children’s parents what was their children’s self-perception of their sexual orientation, I thought it was pretty rubbishy information, which could have been exploited by people who were bent on conditioning purposes and otherwise. Will the Government therefore take care of all information of this nature collected in schools and ensure that it cannot be abused, as I suspect it could at the moment?

My noble friend makes a good point. I should reassure him that the DfE has robust processes in place to ensure that the confidentiality of pupils’ details is maintained, and there are necessary checks and balances to ensure that there is no inadvertent misuse of these data. I go further to say that there is no requirement for schools to request or see documentary evidence such as a passport or birth certificate; it is purely focused on specific issues, with those safeguards.

I believe that I have answered that question to the extent that all pupils are taken account of and the schools of course have their own management information system to be able to monitor pupils from wherever they come—from within this country or abroad.

My Lords, I can understand that such information may possibly be of use educationally, but can the Minister explain why and for what purpose that same information is given to the Home Office?

I can reassure the noble Lord that the information is not given to the Home Office. There has been some mischief in the press about this, but I reassure the House that the information is kept within the Department for Education and is not passed on to the Home Office.

My Lords, can the Minister give an absolute assurance that it is not obligatory for a school to fill in this question, and that no sanction will be applied to a school which fails to do so, or to a parent who does not answer?

That is absolutely correct. The guidance is very clear on that. If, for example, a school wishes to send information to the DfE and parents do not agree for that particular child, it does not get sent.