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Primary Education News
News Ministers planning immigration crackdown on 'education tourists'
Proposal being considered by inter-ministerial group on migrants' access to benefits, according to leaked emails
Ministers are considering a plan to require schools to check the immigration status of their pupils, as part of a crackdown on "education tourists".
The policy proposal is being weighed up by ministers who make up the inter-ministerial group (IMG) on migrants' access to benefits and public services, according to a chain of leaked emails written by officials of the Department for Education (DfE) in the past week.
The emails from civil servants advising the IMG – which includes schools minister David Laws and immigration minister Mark Harper – suggest that the group considered banning illegal immigrant children from schools. However, the civil servants warned that the UK would be in contravention of article 28 of the UN convention on the rights of the child if ministers took that step.
One study published last May by Oxford University's centre on migration, policy and society estimated there were 120,000 children living in the UK without legal immigration status.
The Labour MP John McDonnell, who has seen the emails, said the immigration proposals were "scraping the barrel of morality".
In a lengthy memo sent on Friday to David McVean, deputy director of the DfE, one civil servant reported on the next steps the department would take to "support the [IMG] on migration".
"The group has asked that DfE looks further at the feasibility of carrying out checks on migrant status as part of school admissions," the email said. "David Laws has asked for a cost-benefit analysis of carrying out the checks. I think this needs to consider evidence of the extent of existing problems – Home Office have already provided some estimates for the number of illegal migrant children in English schools – … [and] how migrant status information could be used.
"I think members of IMG have agreed that there should not be a bar on illegal migrants going to school – David Laws certainly sees this as a red line."
Headteachers warned about the potential of such a proposal to politicise the education process. Lesley Gannon, head of policy at the National Association of Headteachers, said it was "very concerned" about the idea.
She said: "You can't hold children responsible for the behaviours of their parents, it's simply not fair. All of our codes of practice around admissions, behaviour and exclusions have always emphasised that you deal with the child and not the parents in terms of their access to education and their treatment within the school. We wouldn't want to see anything jeopardise that.
"It's also really worrying to start to drag schools into politics in this way. Yes, we are public servants, part of the state, but once you put that process in place, I'd suggest you're encouraging parents who are worried about their immigration status to avoid putting their children into school, to avoid detection. That puts the educational rights of that child at risk."
The civil servant's memo said feedback on the proposal should be worked up in advance of a ministerial meeting between Laws and Harper on 8 April. It added that the prime minister was planning a speech on immigration "in the next few weeks". Though the speech would not include new education policies, there was "always a risk that we might need to do some quick work", the email warned.
The most recent email in the chain, sent on Monday, suggested that examining the migration status of children before they were admitted to school would be a helpful step if ministers decided at a later date to ban them from compulsory education.
"Barring children, whatever their migrant status, from compulsory education has pretty much been ruled out by ministers and at the moment is off the table for cross-government discussions. The question now is whether, if not to enforce a ban, it would nevertheless be helpful to carry out migrant status checks as part of school admissions," the email said.
In a third email, another civil servant warned that although "strategies could probably be employed to deal with 'education tourists', in much the same [way] as 'health tourists' are managed," withdrawing education from illegal immigrant children would throw up legal and logistical problems.
A fourth civil servant said: "If we were to withdraw the right of education from any children in the UK, regardless of their status, we would be hugely criticised for it by the UN ... This would be very controversial."
The DfE referred the Guardian to the Home Office, which said it did not comment on leaked documents or private ministerial discussions. But in an answer to a Commons question on Tuesday from McDonnell after he was given sight of the leaked memos, the home secretary, Theresa May, said there were no plans to bar children from schools.
The immigration minister was heard in the Commons saying: "We were never planning on doing that anyway."
McDonnell said the emails confirmed "the government were considering barring migrant children from school and were only deterred by the potential reaction of the UN. The fear is that this proposal will be brought back in the immigration bill the home secretary has just announced for the next session of parliament.
"In the meantime, teachers may now be drawn into checking the migrant status of their pupils. The government is scraping the barrel of morality in its attack on migrant children."
Brian Lightman, secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, also feared that children's education and welfare would suffer and said it would not be a school's job to monitor immigration status. "We would be very concerned if people were not sending their children to school because of these checks, if they thought they would be caught out. There's a real issue about the welfare of those children.
"I don't think it's the role of schools to carry out immigration checks. Our members would be very wary of doing it. That is not their job and there's potentially enormous consequences if you got that wrong, and it should be done by a properly qualified agency. It's not what schools are there for."