Against Borders for Children: the expanding border and the family

by | 14 Oct 2016 | The Blog | 0 comments

Three times a year, schools in England must complete a census of their students, providing the government with basic information with a view to informing future policy.  This year, for the first time, the government is asking schools to provide country of birth and nationality information for all students. At present, parents are free to refuse, and the school is not obliged to ask students to provide a passport or other forms of identification.

The Against Borders for Children campaign is encouraging all parents to write to their school heads, and ask that they be recorded as ‘refusing’ to provide nationality and country of birth. The ABC campaign is concerned that requesting such information is divisive, and will put vulnerable children at risk. They point out that the National Pupil Database was accessed 18 times by the Home Office between April 2012 and July 2016. The Home Office could potentially use the nationality information provided in the new census to target migrant, especially asylum-seeking, families. Indeed, the timing of the changes are worrying, as the government also recently announced its intention to recommence imprisoning immigrant children in standard detention centres, rather than the CEDARS family removal centre run by Barnardo’s. The information in the census can also be accessed, following an approval process, by journalists, researchers, and other third parties. These individuals would then be able to determine which schools have the greatest numbers of immigrant pupils, which is potentially of great concern, particularly given the upsurge in racist attacks following the Brexit vote.  Various right-wing papers, including the ‘respectable’ broadsheets like The Telegraph, and The Times, regularly publish articles bemoaning the number of students in British schools who do not speak English at home.  It’s not far fetched to wonder if articles complaining about the number of immigrant students will follow this year’s school census.

Ostensibly, the government has decided to collect information about students’ nationalities with a view to informing policy – “to understand how effective the education sector is for foreign nationals and to effectively measure the impact of foreign nationals on the education sector”.  However, no statement has been made regarding any future plans or funding to help support foreign nationals in UK schools.  In addition, as Jen Persson argues, it is not clear why the government cannot use already existing statistics, for example, as provided by the ONS, to inform future policy instead. The need to “effectively measure the impact of foreign nationals on the education sector” sounds particularly ominous in the context of recent debate.  During and after the EU referendum, it was repeatedly claimed by politicians in both the Conservative and the Labour parties –recently Owen Smith, for example – that immigrant children were responsible for a shortage of school places.[1] During the 2015 election campaign, Nigel Farage suggested that immigrant children should be excluded from state schools, and therefore forced to pay for a private education, for 5 years after moving to the UK.  Similar arguments around NHS ‘health tourists’ were used to justify further restricting immigrants’ access to health care under the 2014 Immigration Act.

These changes to the school census should also be understood in the wider context of two worrying, and intersecting, trends in immigration policy. The first is the expansion of ‘the border’ into the everyday places where people try to access the resources they need to build a life in the UK. The second is the rise of immigration and citizenship policies that target biological and social reproduction. The first trend has been fairly well-documented.  Employers have been obliged to carry out ‘right to work’ checks since 2006. Under the 2014 Immigration Act, NHS employees, landlords, and banks employees are all obliged to check a prospective patient or client’s immigration status.  Because ordinary employers, health workers, landlords, and bank tellers are not trained in immigration law, these rules have been frequently misapplied and have led to clear discrimination based on stereotypical ideas about who ‘seems’ British.  Research carried out by the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI), for example, found that as a consequence of the 2014 Immigration Act, 42% of the landlords they surveyed said they would be unlikely to rent to tenants without British passports, and over 25% said they would be less likely to rent to a person with a ‘foreign’ name or accent. In this context, it is not entirely surprising that BME pupils have been reported as being asked by schools to bring in their passports, despite this not being required by the government.

At the same time, the changes to the school census can also be seen as part of a pattern of government intervention in the reproduction practices of migrants and their families.  There is a long history of immigration policy targeting immigrant families, especially those from racialized groups. In the late 1970s, for example, women from the Asian subcontinent trying to join fiancés in the UK were subjected to virginity tests, on the grounds that a ‘real’ prospective bride from the Asian subcontinent would be a virgin. From 1980 to 1997, individuals seeking to join a fiancé in the UK had to prove that their ‘primary purpose’ in coming to the UK was marriage.  The changes to the Family Migration Rules, undertaken by the Coalition government in 2012, are in keeping with this trend.  There is now a minimum income requirement of £18,600 to sponsor someone on a spousal visa, rising to £22,400 to sponsor a spouse and a child, and increasing by £2,400 for each additional child. Furthermore, whereas prior to 2012, the sponsored spouse had to wait 2 years to apply for Indefinite Leave to Remain, now s/he must reapply for a spousal visa after 30 months, and then apply for Indefinite Leave to Remain after an additional 30 months – having to fulfil the same family income requirements at each renewal point. As the income requirements increase with each child, a family may postpone having, or choose not to have, children in order to avoid having their visa cancelled.  Pregnant women have often been singled out in the ‘health tourist’ discourse as posing a particular threat to the NHS. The government press release after the passage of the 2014 Immigration Act, for example, specifically cited pregnant women as a group that had been unfairly taking advantage of the NHS and would now be charged for its use. This targeting of pregnant women must again be understood within a long history of fears about the supposed ‘fertility’ of migrant women, and what that fertility might mean for the nation-state. Feminist researcher Irene Gedalof, for example, has argued that New Labour policy constructed migrant women as a ‘problem’ because they were supposedly passing on ‘their culture’ to their children, thereby preventing their children’s ‘integration’ in the UK.

Reproduction practices are increasingly targeted for intervention by immigration and citizenship policies. The border has expanded into the places – hospitals, employers, the housing sector, and now schools – that are central to biological and social reproduction.  Only those migrant families that reproduce according to the arbitrary standards set by neoliberal state policy – that is, who will not require any welfare state support – are able to remain in the UK.  Boycotting the school census is one small way to resist both the encroachment of the border into the spaces of everyday life.

For more information on how you can support the boycott of the school census, please go to

[1] In fact, the 2011 Education Act requires that all new schools be academy schools, unless the local authority can get special permission from the Secretary of State. This obviously makes it difficult for local authorities to address an increase in pupils, whether caused by a spike in birth-rates, or by people moving into an area from other parts of the UK or outside the UK.



Gwyneth LonerganGwyneth Lonergan

Gwyneth Lonergan is in the final stages of her PhD in Sociology at the University of Manchester, researching the impact of local geographies on migrant women’s activism.  Originally from Canada, her research interests include migration, citizenship, reproductive justice, social movements, and critical urbanism.