DfE acknowledge need for transparency but won’t share information on Becket Keys readiness

This morning we were passed the following correspondence by a local parent who wished to share their concern about the apparent lack of transparency in the free school approval process. Justine Ambrose was also concerned about the subsequent viability of the reaction of the Department for Education (DfE) to the readiness review as reported by the proposers of the Becket Keys Church of England School on their Facebook page.

The response to her mail by the DfE acknowledges the importance of transparency of this process in the public interest but refuses to disclose any record of the review in this case as this could lead to inaccurate assessments being made about the readiness of Free Schools to open on time.”

Unless those assessments are made and “reported” by the free school proposers themselves.

As Justine summarised in her mail, “so if info can’t be shared how come BK can post their view of the meeting on Facebook? As my 11 year old might say, “OMG””.

The original request to the DfE was made last month as follows:

I understand a Readiness for Opening meeting took place recently for the proposed new Brentwood free school, Becket Keys. The school has posted a quote on its Facebook page as follows:- “Mr Scott-Evans and RET colleagues went to the DfE today for our Readiness for Opening meeting. Guess what? We’re ready!!! An excellent meeting covering all issues: staff (excellent), policies (excellent), development planning (excellent), budget plans (excellent), OfSTED (excellent), worship and service to the community (excellent), training (excellent), governance (excellent). You name it – we covered it. We are ready and raring to go! Bring on September. Thanks to all our supporters – we could not have done it without you.”

Please can you supply minutes or a report of the meeting. I’m a parent trying to make an informed decision regarding secondary schools and I would appreciate the opportunity to read a formal report, rather than solely rely on a Facebook posting.”

The response from the DfE was received this morning:

 Date: Mon, 6 Aug 2012 10:43:26

 Dear Mrs Ambrose,

Thank you for your request for information, which was received on 9 July 2012.

Although you have not asked for this information to be disclosed under the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (the Act) any request for recorded information should be dealt with under the Act, which gives the public a right of access to information, subject to certain exemptions to disclosure.

In this case the information you are asking for is being withheld because it is exempt from disclosure under Section 36 of the Act. Section 36(2) of the Act exempts from disclosure information which, in the reasonable opinion of a qualified person (a Minister in the case of Government Departments) would be likely to inhibit the free and frank exchange of views for the purposes of deliberation – Section 36 (2) (b) (ii); or would be likely otherwise to prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs – Section 36 (2) (c).

A Minister has decided that, in his reasonable opinion, disclosure of this information would be likely to have this effect and therefore the exemptions in section 36(2)(b) (ii) and section 36(2)(c) apply.

Section 36 is a qualified exemption and therefore a public interest test has been carried out. In doing so the following factors have been taken into consideration:

· It is acknowledged that there is a general public interest in disclosure because of the need for there to be open and transparent government and that the sharing of information with the public should be free and open.

· If the outcomes of these meetings were made publicly available, it is likely to restrict the free and frank exchange of views between the Department and Free School groups. This could lead to inaccurate assessments being made about the readiness of Free Schools to open on time.

· This information has been collated and presented for internal use only and could present a false or misleading picture to readers who are not aware of the context or have not been present at the meeting.

The arguments for and against release have been considered and it has been decided that the balance of public interest falls in favour of the maintenance of this exemption in relation to certain information requested.

If you are unhappy with the way your request has been handled you should make a complaint in writing within two calendar months of the date of this letter. Your complaint will be considered by an independent review panel, not involved in the original consideration of your request. If you are not content with the outcome of your complaint you may then contact the Information Commissioner’s Office.

Finally, I should add that whilst the Secretary of State has yet to enter into a Funding Agreement for Becket Keys School, the Free School Trust behind it have been subject to a rigorous assessment process and are now progressing well in the pre-opening phase of the project. I am sure that the Trust can provide further details of their progress towards opening the School and you may wish to contact the Trust direct.

Yours sincerely

Ian Jacobs
Free Schools Group”

This response is consistent with freedom of information requests submitted regarding approval of other free schools, including, as highlighted by the National Union of Teachers (NUT) nationally, impact assessments that are supposed to be made by the Secretary of State for Education prior to approving a funding agreement.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2012/apr/08/teachers-union-free-school-assessments

This exchange is yet another example of a concerning lack of openness about how taxpayers money is being allocated to free school projects nationally. It also makes it difficult for parents and other interested parties to make an accurate assessment of the progress of schools intending to open in four weeks time when presented with information that cannot be validated.

Stephen and Kathryn Mayo

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