Shine A Light

Refuse, retract, resist: boycott the schools census

As the British state tries to make a register of foreign-born children, parents should question a liberal trust in government and reject borders in classrooms. An interview with Gargi Bhattacharyya.

Phoebe Braithwaite
17 May 2017

'Even the tiniest children are being used as these political footballs'. Children at the Windrush Nursery in Greenwich, south east London. John Stillwell/PA Images. All rights reserved. On Thursday, 18th May, schools in the UK will be gathering personal data from children aged 5-19 for the National Pupil Database (NPD), which records information about children's nationality, ethnicity and country of birth. The further penetration of policing into schools builds on a systematic effort to create hostile environments in the lives of people the state seeks to remove. 

Giving this information is not mandatory.

Before Thursday there are a few things parents can do:

  1. Refuse to give this information. You are under no compulsion to comply. Boycott the census.
  2. Withdraw any information that has so far been gathered. You can retrospectively decide not to participate in the school census as long as it is before Thursday 18th May.
  3. Resist the surveillance of children, migrants and all people, by getting involved in politics locally and campaigning against state racism

Schools campaign group Against Borders for Children (ABC) have already helped to successfully ward off attempts to collect data from children aged 2-5 in early years education. If enough people refuse to participate in Thursday’s census, the group will have helped to avert further invasions, rejecting stark militarisation in the lives of young people.

"'This is an important campaign," says Frances Webber of the Institute of Race Relations, a signatory of the campaign. "The danger is that once schools are implicated in immigration policing, they become places of fear, not learning and development for children.'

In the words of sociologist Gargi Bhattacharyya, here is a far older activity of the state – paring back who counts as human. Policing the immigration status of children, and parents via their children, is a matter “of not only actively marking the border, but of fostering popular racism. It's as much about excluding some children, as it is encouraging others to think of themselves as settled, as potential racists, as having investment in the racist idea of a nation.” 

“In this country, certainly since the 60s there's been a whole series of ways of actively racialising children in schools,” she says. “As Bernard Coard famously says, West Indian children are made educationally subnormal… that's sadly been a core aspect of UK schooling – probably since the institution of popular schooling in this country, certainly since the ‘44 act,” says Bhattacharyya.

Last year leaks revealed that the Home Office under Theresa May tried to enforce a policy which would de-prioritise children on the basis of their citizenship, withdrawing places from children whose parents were seeking asylum in the country or whose documentation was otherwise irregular. 

In the wake of a massive hack of NHS computer systems, it is also clear that inadequately funded services cannot protect citizens’ intimate data – data the state is gathering more and more actively. But this is not to imagine that hackers would be using families’ information for any more harmful ends than immigration enforcement themselves.

Refusing to take part in the census gives a real-world meaning to a left-wing ideal of ‘not being complicit’ in the structures of oppression.

It is especially important that parents of children who were born in this country or with secure immigration status boycott the census. This would make data unusable because it would mean that people were not identifiable purely on the basis of abstention. Refusing to take part in the census gives a real-world meaning to a left-wing ideal of ‘not being complicit’ in the structures of oppression: people in strong positions can quite literally lessen the burden on those made precarious by structural racism through refusing to take part.

The Immigration Act 2016 made border guards out of ordinary people. Employers of migrant workers can now report employees for the crime of “illegal working”; landlords are to check the immigration status of potential tenants and will face up to five years in prison for refusing to do so; newly invasive powers enable immigration enforcement to search property and seize documents, to stop migrants from driving, and to freeze or close bank accounts. Migrants across the board now have to appeal their case out of the country, which makes the task of appealing far harder.

“I think this is clearly a larger technique of government to try and institute different public spaces, as if we're all under suspicion and the only way to show that you're not under suspicion is to become an informant.” This kind of “securitised logic,” says Bhattacharyya, “is extended beyond immigration and Prevent, and deeply embedded in issues around welfare now.”

For those that are really at the hard end of state violence it confirms their sense that you can't reach out to other people, that your space of operation gets smaller and smaller, that your life becomes more and more unseen.

Bringing the border closer to home “does in the day-to-day it makes people frightened, and it is designed to do that. The people who are most vulnerable feel most frightened because they're not hearing other people say, ‘Oh, this is just ridiculous, I can't do that’. They just hear the state injunction to shop people."

“That is a core bit of it, that in some ways it doesn't matter so much that all of the rest of us are compliant or not, as long as that logic is repeated and repeated. Because for those that are really at the hard end of state violence it confirms their sense that you can't reach out to other people, that your space of operation gets smaller and smaller, that your life becomes more and more unseen.”

"If you don't participate in state policing, then you yourself become the object of policing. And I think that sadly does work to corrode trust and solidarity between people. And it works unevenly,” she says. "Sometimes the overreach of the state can be helpful to us because they reveal themselves so openly. And I wonder sometimes if even Prevent has been a little like this, that it's been so overblown in its claims, of how broadly suspicion should be framed and how limited our knowledge of what it should be based on is." 

This campaign is vital in the short term, but, Bhattacharyya argues, there is also an opportunity here for “reckoning with what is actually going on... Bordering is already in our schools, including with the tiniest children, even if they've removed the early years reporting aspect now, this shows how absolutely children are being used as these political footballs in a poisonous debate about immigration… Although it's terrible, there's part of me that thinks: ‘Aha! we've revealed you as you are.”

With thanks to Ella Milburn for her work on the piece.

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