Misapprehension and Misinformation

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Are schools clear about what EAL information should/should not be communicated to the Department for Education?

As schools respond to the changes in the October census return, there has been a perfect storm of misapprehension and misinformation, for some parents:

  • instructed to show schools a child’s passport and provide their child’s passport number,
  • told to tick a box marked, ‘refugees’ or ‘asylum seekers’,
  • informed that the school may make decisions about ethnicity on their behalf.

Misapprehension: a mistaken belief about or interpretation of something. Misinformation: false or inaccurate information, especially that which is deliberately intended to deceive.


It’s hard to imagine what kind of community relations and parental engagement anyone hopes to achieve by such misguided communications. Last week, the mainstream media caught up with events led by Schools Week, who provided both detailed coverage and a characteristically incisive editorial by Laura McInerney.

Nobody should now be in any doubt, that a school is legally obligated to ask the questions required of it by the census return, but they are not required to verify the information voluntarily disclosed to them and parents may decline to reply.

Nevertheless, many families remain anxious and the boycott campaign is gathering pace, often supported by colleagues who are both parents and educational professionals who understand the value of data, properly and confidentially collated. Dermot Bryers, managing director of the inspirational ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) charity English for Action, explains in The Guardian why, for him, safeguarding vulnerable families is a priority.

Good News National Averages!

This situation is not an easy circle to square.

I have always advocated for a greater focus on disaggregated information about EAL (English as an Additional Language) and BME (Black and Minority Ethnic) pupils in order to improve our provision for them and avoid complacency about those children whose poor outcomes are disguised by good news national averages. The quality of pupil profile information we collect locally is also central to the best provision for EAL children. However, reading DefendDigitalMe has made me question whether I have been approaching a laudable aim from a naive perspective?


  • What active conversations do schools have with parents about information collected, and what is done with it?
  • Do parents know what they are/are not obligated to share with schools?
  • Do schools know what they are obligated to share with the DfE?
  • Have schools evaluated the levels of confidentiality they can offer different levels of information?
  • And, have schools differentiated how they gather this information?

My professional advice is to prioritise relationships with your community while meeting legal obligations. Be explicit with parents about what information is being collected for the census return and keep this data set separate from information gathered for use in-house.

For complete transparency about the census, parents need to:

  • access to the paragraph of  rationale provided by the DfE  (schools cannot provide any further reassurance to parents),
  • receive a reminder that it is their decision whether to provide information or not,
  • to be made aware of any English proficiency return made for their child and what basis it has been made.


Schools cannot safeguard personal information shared by parents and how it is used once it has gone to the DfE.  The DfE’s meagre rationale regarding purpose of collection is stated on page 65 of the most recent guidance. For best practice, ask to have this paragraph translated if necessary and share so parents can decide for themselves what to disclose.

Pupil nationality would be expected to appear on – or be derived from – the passport or European economic area (EEA) identity card. However, there is no requirement for the school to request, or see, a copy of the passport or identity card. For pupils with ‘Multiple Nationality’ (also known as ‘Dual Nationality’) more than one nationality may be recorded. (Department for Education.)

It’s interesting to note that there was an attempt to bring in passport checks in school in 2013 but it would have contravened a UN ruling and the proposal was scrapped. And despite reassuring BBC headlines this week, Nick Gibb has said that existing ‘data handling protocols’ will remain unchanged. Apparently there have been 18 submissions of pupil data to the Home Office since 2012; parental anxiety is well-founded.

For the sake of national data analysis which challenges barriers and under-achievement, I hope parents will continue to provide information about ethnicity and language(s). This can’t be assumed and certainly not second guessed.

None of the above should distract from the importance of capturing the complex linguistic and cultural/geographical histories of our EAL pupils in school.  We need respectful, sensitive and interactive ways to do this, and a sharper understanding of how research indicates we should proceed with what we find out.

Written by @DiLeed; her blog is here.

For further guidance about EAL/BME data collection and provision:



2 thoughts on “Misapprehension and Misinformation

  1. Great piece. Thank you.

    I think that you highlight two really important features of this.

    1) We need good EAL data if we are to do right by our students. From a research perspective it is imperative that we have decent disaggregated information about things like home language practice etc. so that we can spot patterns and assess the effects of teaching approaches for different subgroups. From a teaching perspective, it obviously helps us to plan appropriate teaching approaches if we have good data on the things that affect language learning (English proficiency, previous school experience, possibly important socio-cultural characteristics etc.).


    2) The data will be compromised if it is collected in such a way as to foster mistrust about the process, provoking boycotts and incomplete reporting. This is very similar to the care.data debacle when what would have been a sensible use of anonymised, accurate patient data to improve our healthcare resulted in mass opt outs because the people handling it behaved in such a way as to suggest that they could not be trusted to behave ethically.

    I like to stay optimistic and assume that the bungling of this is a result of ignorance rather than malevolence. But bungled it has been!

    EAL leaners, their families, and their teachers stand to gain from the availability of accurate information. If schools make it look like a xenophobic witch hunt then not only is the data compromised but obviously there are social repercussions. It beggars belief that any school would think it was appropriate to ask for passport numbers and immigration statuses. Quite apart from anything else, in this world of overwhelming red tape, why would anyone give themselves more work by having to collect, record, collate information that no one has asked for.

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