How can “founders’ status” be “fair and inclusive”?

In May this year we were contacted by a local parent, who is very active within education in Brentwood, who was concerned that changed admission arrangements at one of our local schools made it more selective than a new state funded school was entitled to be.

The admissions policy of Becket Keys free school for 2015 entry shows significant change from the first two years of its existence. Along with a new clearly defined preference for attendees of Brentwood and, interestingly, Ongar churches, there is a new criteria for those who enjoy something called “founders’ status”. The whole policy is available here:

When reviewing the changes, what intrigued me particularly was that the criteria clearly stipulated that “founders’ status” is in the gift of the Secretary of State himself. Could it really be the case that Mr Gove was now prepared to intervene in potential admissions appeals for individual schools?

In addition, as this is now the priority criteria after statutory ones are met, given that no “founders” are listed in the criteria, how exactly was this to be policed?

So in the first week of June I submitted a Freedom of Information (FOI) request to the Department for Education (DfE) to clarify matters. I received a response, for some reason from the Education Funding Agency (EFA), on Monday. Far from easing my fears, and that of our original correspondent, it seemed to reveal a worrying lack of transparency that is open to abuse and puts into serious question the often stated commitment to inclusion of the free school programme.

The full response, including my original request is available here:

FOI Response 2014-0042723 – S-Mayo 7 July 2014

As my question was in four parts, I will take them in order and provide the response received (in italics) in each case:

The published admissions policy for 2015/16 of Becket Keys Church of England School in Brentwood has the following as its third criteria:Children whose parents have been granted Founders’ status of the school by the Secretary of State.”

So that parents interested in applying for a place at the school can be clear on how many places are available to them following the application of this criteria, please could you confirm who has been granted this status by the Secretary of State?

EFAThe Department holds both the name and the number of individuals that have been granted founders’ status by the academy trust according to the requirements of the Charity law. This information is being witheld under Section 40 (personal information) of the [FOI] Act.

Personal data is that which relates to a living individual who can be identified from that data. Disclosureof this information, such as releasing a name, would contravene a number of a number of data protection principles…and would be regarded as ‘unfair’. By that, we mean the likely expectations of the data subject that his or her information would not be disclosed to others and the effect which disclosure would have on the subject.

So, we can rest assured that, despite the wording in the Becket Keys criteria, it is the Academy Trust and not the Secretary of State who has “granted founders’ status” to some parents. However, in some respects, this makes it all the more concerning and all the more important to understand the basis of that decision.

Those running a state funded school have decided to give a set of parents priority over other applicants and yet we are not allowed to know who they are because of “the effect that disclosure would have on the subject”.

What on Earth does that mean? Why would “founders” not wish to be identified when they were presumably at the forefront of the campaign to establish the school in the first place? What “effect” are the DfE expecting?

Aniticipating this sort of response, I provided a follow up:

If you are unable to release actual names, can you explain why and instead state how many people have been granted this status?

Releasing the number of individuals that have been granted founders’ status is statistically significant and may potentially lead to the identification of the individual. Section 40(2) provides that personal data about third parties is exempt information if one of the conditions set out in Section 40(3) is satisfied…This exemption is ‘absolute’ in these circumstances, which means that it is not necessary for the Department to run a test to balance the public interest in release against that in withholding the information.

Parents applying for a place at a school that chooses to apply this criteria will therefore have no idea how many places are actually available to them.

We are not allowed to know who, or how many, have been granted this “status” so, seeking some reassurance that some form of agreed process is in place to allow this to happen, I asked the following:

Could you also provide the criteria for granting “founders status” and whether this process is complete or ongoing?

Free schools must abide by the School admissions code and operate fair and inclusive admissions. Where parents have worked hard to create a school that will benefit generations of children in years to come, the Department will consider requests to allow a small number of founders’ children to obtain priority in admissions. We will only agree to requests in exceptional circumstances and where the parents concerned played a major role in the set-up and on-going operation of the school. Once founders’ status has been granted to an academy trust, the process is complete for all future admissions rounds.

I submit that the very presence of “founders’ status” within a state funded school admissions policy means that it contravenes the Schools admissions code. It is, by definition, exclusive to a “small number” (how small we are not allowed to know) of parents as identified by the school itself.inclusion

The response provided raises more concerns than it addresses, the exception being the clear statement that this status can only be bestowed for one application. But we are given no information on what constitues “exceptional circumstances” and what a “major role” amounts to.

I see nothing in this explanation that prevents an Academy Trust granting priority admission to whoever they wish as it is plainly not being policed. We are asked to accept a Trust’s judgement on who is worthy “to obtain priority in admissions”.

We must remember that all academies and free schools are now their own admissions authority. So what recourse do parents have if they believe that a school’s admissions policy has not been applied properly?:

Finally, can you confirm the process should anyone wish to check who has this status in the event of an admissions appeal?

The derogation set out at point 2C of the academy trusts’ funding agreement admissions annex, allows the trust as the admissions authority to consider an application on the basis of parental background and status for the purposes of prioritising children whose parent is a founder of a school…The Office of the Schools Adjudicator (OSA) has no jurisdiction to consider objections against the actual variation to the admissions code. However, parents have the right of appeal if they feel the admissions processes was carried out unlawfully. The school would therefore need to demonstrate at appeal that it had carried out the admission process lawfully by demonstrating that in giving priority it had been given sufficient evidence to assure itself that the parent was indeed a founder.

So, if I read this correctly, the only way to challenge whether “sufficient evidence” has been provided to warrant founders’ status is via an appeal by a parent who has been unsuccessful in gaining a place for their child at a school. Leaving aside how they are supposed to know if that criteria has been applied in that round given the lack of names and numbers of those affected, this seems to acknowledge that granting that status is only a matter of an Academy Trust assuring “itself” of the validity of priority status for a list of parents.

Let us be clear, we are using Becket Keys as an illustration of a policy that seems open to abuse, in common with all free schools, they are allowed to insert this criteria in their admissions policy. According to the National Union of Teachers, around 27 (16%) of the 174 free schools in the UK have chosen to do so.

inclusion 2I do find it puzzling that a school giving priority to local church goers would feel the need to insert this criteria unless the “founders” are not local or church goers which would rather contradict the justification for the school in the first place. But it is the very existence of the policy applying to any new school that causes me and our group concern.

As fellow Educating Brentwood member Richard Millwood neatly summarised on reviewing the response:

“It gives a lot of power without accountability to hand out ‘dispensations’ – how could anyone challenge them? Also, it seems to me, that if a free school setting up knew this, they could surely ensure that all the parents they wanted were accorded this status by making them ‘work hard’ and an entirely selective school could be constructed.

It re-defines public service as self-service.”

We are constantly told that the free school programme is about providing open access to good schooling regardless of background.

How is giving priority admission to an unknown number of unidentified people, on criteria only the school needs to know, a demonstration of inclusivity?

And why are the rest of us expected to fund it?

Stephen Mayo

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