Since we formed our group at the start of this year I have been consistently shocked at the lack of transparency in the conduct of the Department for Education (DfE). It has occurred to me more than once that they appear to operate in a parallel universe seemingly untouched by the current financial climate and bound by a different set of laws.
I was therefore entirely unsurprised when it was announced this week that the application of the Freedom of Information Act (FOI) within the Department was deemed unacceptable.
The BBC reported (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-20809641):
“In the latest quarter it had the worst record out of all departments in England for responding to FOI requests within the legal time limit, managing this in only 74% of cases. Some other departments such as Health had a 100% score.
So it’s not surprising that the Department for Education has today been put under special monitoring by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) because of its inadequate record on FOI. This is a bit like the ICO’s equivalent of schools being placed in special measures following a critical inspection by Ofsted.”
An ironic outcome which some wags on Twitter have since pointed out would lead them to be forcibly taken over where they to be a school in the same position.
The ICO’s sanction appears to cover the speed of responses but not their content which, in our direct experience, are even more concerning. Indeed I received a fresh example last week which illustrates this problem.
Following our coverage of the recent announcement of Academy funding for 2012/13 (“The true cost of “demand” over need in Brentwood” http://wp.me/p2dr6s-bQ), the Brentwood Gazette covered the story in relation to the town’s new Free School with comments from affected parties.
As part of the article, St Martin’s School Head teacher Mike O’Sullivan states “after a few years the start-up costs will reduce and the per pupil funding will fall into line with other schools in Brentwood.” I couldn’t understand how “start up costs” could cover anything other than the initial year of a new school so I requested a copy of the Becket Keys funding agreement from the DfE via an FOI request to see what term preferential funding will cover.
I can report that the response I received was timely but the contents followed a by now common theme:
“This funding agreement is being withheld under section 22 of the FOI Act, which exempts information which is held by a public authority with a view to its publication (Information intended for future publication). The exemption in Section 22 is a qualified exemption and therefore we have considered the public interest balance. The arguments for and against release now have been assessed and it is our view that the balance of public interest falls in favour of the exemption in relation to the information you have asked for. The public interest in permitting the Department to publish information in a manner and at a time of own choosing is important. It is part of the effective conduct of public affairs that the general publication of information is a conveniently planned and managed activity within the reasonable control of the Department which should not be rushed into premature publication.”
In short, the DfE will publish information when it “chooses” to, not when taxpayers ask to see it. We are not provided with any indication of when this might be.
The full letter is available here: FOI 2012-0078391
Earlier this year a local parent passed us correspondence that she had received as a result of an FOI request. It is an extraordinary example of what appears to me to be a total disregard for accountability to the public for (rapidly) changing education policy since 2010. The requested information was withheld because, we are told, it “could lead to inaccurate assessments being made about the readiness of Free Schools to open on time.” Taxpayers are not trusted to judge this for themselves.
“DfE acknowledge need for transparency but won’t share information on Becket Keys readiness “ http://wp.me/p2dr6s-9V
Possibly the worst example is the complete refusal by the DfE to release impact assessments that are supposed to be conducted by law prior to the approval of a Free School. The NUT continues to campaign for their release and have instructed lawyers to look into this further. (http://www.teachers.org.uk/node/15481)
The myriad of examples of this type of conduct from all over the country have led leading education blogger Laura McInerney to collect them up and request an Internal Review into DfE responses to FOI requests specific to Free Schools. The detail of the request is covered here:
It is difficult to comprehend how radically education policy has altered in the last two and a half years. Has public accountability and transparency been a casualty of attempting to change so much in such a short time?
The hasty announcement of radical change to the Key Stage 4 examination system which preceded any consultation is symptomatic of this (EBC: Consultation or PR for a foregone conclusion? http://wp.me/p2dr6s-cB). It was instructive therefore to see how the Education Secretary tackled questions from the Parliamentary Education Select Committee on the day that the exam regulator Ofqual published a letter that it had written to him about their concerns regarding the proposed reforms.
The BBC report (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-20610137) contained the following:
“A letter it wrote to him was released this lunchtime.
The release follows tense exchanges between Mr Gove and MPs in the Education Select Committee this morning.
He confirmed he had received a letter from Ofqual, but refused repeated requests from the MPs to reveal what was in it.
Mr Gove said it was up to Ofqual if it wanted to release the letter, but that he would be meeting officials next week to discuss the concerns.
Committee chairman and Conservative MP Graham Stuart said it was “unacceptable” that Mr Gove would not discuss the concerns with MPs.”
Noting the stark contrast to his approach to this year’s GCSE’s fiasco, I read on:
“Asked why he chose to replace some GCSEs rather than reform them, Mr Gove said he had wanted “a clean break” and to move to a new system.
And he told MPs that he would be willing to overrule Ofqual after discussing their concerns.
“If they still had concerns and I still believe it is right to go ahead then I would do it, and on my head be it,” he said.”
But none of these changes are on his head, they’re on the many heads of young people currently in the education system and those soon to join it.
Because Mr Gove is just a politician, his position is temporary and the full effect of what he has implemented and proposed will not be fully clear until long after he has gone. Whether you agree with the policies or not, whatever colour of government we have, we have a right to understand why they are being implemented and how much they are going to cost us.
That is why taxpayers should be allowed to scrutinise what is being done with their money.
That is why those in education should be engaged and consulted prior to policy announcements.
That is why the ICO should be broadening the remit of their “special monitoring” to look at the content of FOI replies.
Or perhaps, as in a failing school, we should employ new leadership?