DfE FOI request refusals – “protection” or inhibiting “choice”?

As we have previously covered, in December the Information Commissioner, Christopher Graham, ruled that the Department for Education (DfE) needed to rapidly improve the response rate to Freedom of Information (FOI) requests that they received (DfE in “special measures” – what would happen if they were a school? http://wp.me/p2dr6s-d1). This week, basic information regarding proposals that had been submitted to the DfE since the beginning of their “Free School” programme was published on their website as a consequence of the Commissioner’s intervention.
To accompany its release, the Secretary of State for Education, the Rt Hon Michael Gove MP, published an open letter to Mr Graham that sought to clarify why his department had been reluctant to release this information when previously asked. The full letter is available here:

Click to access open%20letter%20from%20the%20secretary%20of%20state%20to%20the%20information%20commissioner.pdf

Mr Gove explained that, had the DfE abided by the same FOI rules as other state departments, it would have encouraged “people who are ideologically opposed to the Free Schools programme” to launch “personal attacks” on proposers.

He goes on:

“lt is because we wanted to protect public-spirited volunteers from intimidation that we fought against the ruling and appealed it all the way through to the Tribunal.

And it is for these reasons that we must be very careful when it comes to the information we publish about the programme. We want to make sure that people are free to open Free Schools without fear of reprisal or backlash, and parents are free to choose the education they want for their children, whether in a Free School or any other establishment, without intimidation.”

Let’s not dwell on the wilfully simplistic characterisation that all those who object to a free school proposal are “ideologically opposed” to them, each case is surely subject to the local context within which they are proposed (e.g. in areas of surplus places) and this dismisses those factors. The fact is that the only mechanism to provide a new school now is by forming a free school. In common with most, I would have no objection in principle where there is a demonstrable shortage of school places.
We should also not be drawn into an examination of just how many “public spirited volunteers” are actually behind free schools. Brentwood’s new school, as in the majority of such cases, is run by a private company.

Let us instead examine the claim that transparency is the enemy of providing “choice” in education.

Mr Gove’s logic appears flawed as he seems to suggest that revealing to the public that the DfE has received a free school proposal would damage its chances of success. But, we are led to believe, proposers have to demonstrate a significant demand for their school. How can this be achieved if the proposal is a secret?

No-one should condone genuine verbal or physical intimidation on whatever side of an argument but I would suggest that the rare examples are not exclusive to those opposing free schools. Local anonymous trolls are certainly not shy of expressing their non-evidenced views on local press websites and Educating Brentwood was a response to this approach spilling into the papers. The standard of debate on national newspaper web comment sections also underlines that “personal attacks” are not unique to one side of the argument.

What concerns me most, however, is that Mr Gove is promoting secrecy and claiming that a lack of transparency is helpful to parents choosing a school for their child.

Last month I wrote about my concerns that some proposers seemed to be using this secrecy as cover for making extravagant claims about their schools (Does DfE secrecy encourage extravagant Free School claims? http://wp.me/p2dr6s-dK). It followed an Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) ruling that this had indeed been the case in Suffolk. I also noted the similarities closer to home.
You will recall that the following statements were made last summer concerning the “Pre-Inspection Report” of Becket Keys Free School by their proposers:

By e-mail on the 26th June 2012:

“Becket Keys News‏*Pre-opening OfSTED inspection*

We had a brilliant experience of OfSTED in our pre-opening inspection on Monday 25th June. They came to inspect the preparations for Becket Keys and we passed with flying colours in every single criterion. The school’s policies, curriculum plans, site organisation, safety and recruitment processes were all reviewed.”

And, as reported by a local parent to the DfE, from Facebook:

“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.”

By happy coincidence, in the new spirit of openness that seems to have been prompted by the Information Commissioner, the DfE has now published the Pre-Opening Report in question on-line.

The Report is common to all new schools prior to opening and is concerned with a “scrutiny of documentation” and a look at the intended premises. It should also be noted that the Report contains two factual inaccuracies. Firstly, only part of the Sawyers Hall College site has been passed to Becket Keys and Essex CC still own the freehold. Secondly, given the description provided, the “learning tour” may not have been carried out by the Sawyers Hall College Head teacher Stephen Capper but by his Deputy Head, Linda Thompson.

In passing, it seems extraordinary that a senior member of staff from the school that was about to close due to excessive surplus places in Brentwood was then asked to facilitate the opening of a new school at the same location. I also note that this is not acknowledged by the proposers at the time.

So, in the cause of transparency and accountability that Educating Brentwood promotes, we provide the link to the Report so that you can now be the judge as to how accurate a reflection of the Report was presented by the free school’s proposers:

Click to access becket%20keys%20church%20of%20england%20free%20school.pdf

Nationally, I believe that the Secretary of State’s championing of secrecy actually threatens the ability of parents “to choose the education they want for their children”. True choice can only be offered when parents have accurate, verifiable information on which to inform their decisions. By denying parents the opportunity to scrutinise claims made by schools, “free” or otherwise, the DfE are actually providing an unfair basis for the “competition” that they seek to promote.

Locally, nearly seven months on, parents and the community can finally make a more informed judgement on whether, prior to opening, the town’s newest school met their stated aims “‘to teach its students what respect means: to ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’. In other words, the traditional Christian values of caring for the needs of others and being a trustworthy citizen”.

Stephen Mayo


  1. What a farce! The press release from RET about this report was a travesty of the facts. How can they get away with this?

  2. I think Michael Gove’s response on this just goes to prove that he’s after ‘divide and conquer’ rather than collaboration (which, bearing in mind the evidence, might be the more effective way to use the limited resources at his disposal).
    And by seeking to reduce any opposition to free schools being personal or ideological, he’s trying to avoid any discussion about evidence – whether of educational need or approach. Which presumably indicates that he knows he cannot win a proper argument on the subject.


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