The government is forced to publish list of free school proposers by Information Tribunal. Is this the end of the DfE's back door secrecy?

Francis Gilbert's picture
Well done to the British Humanist Association who have fought tooth-and-nail to find out what faith groups are proposing free schools and now have won a landmark case against the Department for Education. The government has tried to present its free schools programme as fully transparent and accountable, but the reality is that it's anything but; it has been mired in secrecy, obfuscation and back door cronyism. The Harold Wilson government may have had "beer and sandwiches" in the 1970s, but it's clear now that the Coalition government has indulged in "wine/mineral water and canapes"  with their favoured few.

This is the British Humanist Association's press release, which is worth printing out in full; generations to come will thank for them this because it means that finally we get to know who is aiming to set up a school before it's all been decided behind closed doors at the DfE.

"In a major ruling, the British Humanist Association (BHA) has won its case against the Department for Education (DfE) over its refusal to publish a list of all groups proposing to establish Free Schools. In a judgement today, the Information Tribunal ruled that the DfE must publish the names, locations and religions of all groups that have applied to run one.

In June 2011 the BHA submitted a Freedom of Information (FOI) request for the names, locations and religions of all 604 groups that had then applied to set up Free Schools in 2011 or 2012. (Currently, this information is only known for the 79 schools which have already been opened.)

The request was rejected by the Government on the grounds that (i) the information related to the development of government policy – something exempted from the FOI Act; and (ii) disclosure was not in the public interest. In September 2011 the BHA appealed to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO). In July 2012 the ICO ruled that disclosure is in the public interest, and so the information should be published.

The Government subsequently appealed to the Information Tribunal, with the BHA being added as a party to the case.

In today’s ruling, the Tribunal found in the BHA’s favour. The Tribunal also agreed with the BHA in a dispute over whether the scope of the case included the religion (if any) of the applicants.

In its defence, the DfE had relied on a single survey of successful Free School applicants as to whether the information should be released. However, the Tribunal found that ‘The quality of the survey evidence upon which the Department (blessed as it is with a wealth of expertise in surveys and other statistical matters) has chosen to rely is poor… The bias in design and description of the questionnaire fatally undermines any reliance that can be placed upon it. The Tribunal is satisfied that the analysis of the questionnaire carried out by the British Humanist Association fairly and appropriately demonstrates the fundamental flaws. The Tribunal was surprised that a Department of State should have chosen to rely on a survey which even on its face was of doubtful reliability but which on further analysis is deeply suspect.’

Responding to today’s news, Richy Thompson, the BHA’s Faith Schools Campaigner who authored the BHA submissions together with David Wolfe QC, said, ‘We are delighted with today’s ruling in our favour, which represents a victory for transparency and democracy. It is vitally important, especially where such substantial sums of their money is involved, that the public is able to have its say in the decisions as to which proposals merit funding. ‘Up to now this has been impossible for Free Schools, whose proposals are not revealed until the Government has decided whether to support their opening. Today’s ruling should change this and lead to a more open and democratic approach.’

The Government will now have to decide whether to abide by the ruling, or appeal it to a higher court. The BHA will continue to fight the case, if necessary, but is hopeful that there will be no further appeal."

Read today’s decision:
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