DfE attempting to bury bad news re academy transfers, Schools Week reveals

Janet Downs's picture

The Department for Education (DfE) appears to be trying to bury the cost of transferring academies from one multi-academy trust to another – a process known as rebrokerage - after my successful attempt to force the DfE to publish the data in January 2016, Schools Week has found.

In December 2015, the Court ordered the DfE to reveal how much rebrokerage cost between September 2013 and October 2014. 

But further attempts from myself and Schools Week to get the DfE to publish rebrokerage costs from November 2014 have been rebuffed.  The first excuse to me was cost.  The second excuse was that the DfE had an ‘intention to publish’ the data.

Schools Week asked the DfE to provide documents showing there was an intention to publish rebrokerage costs.  The DfE released a text which didn’t actually show the DfE intended to publish.  Instead, it said the minister was ‘asked to consider whether to proactively publish information on the cost of rebrokering academies.’

Being asked to consider publication is not the same as deciding to publish.

Schools Week pushed back and received two emails from February 2016.  The first sentence of an email dated 19 February 2016 said Lord Nash had ‘agreed to publishing of the rebrokerage costs’.   The final sentence asked that ‘advice on the publishing strategy be sent to Advisers’.  But between the first and last sentence was a heavily blacked-out section.  The DfE told Schools Week the redacted portion was ‘not in scope’.  Schools Week had only asked for proof of intended publication.  Anything else in the email, according to the DfE, wasn’t relevant.

Unfortunately for the DfE, the blacked-out section hadn’t been redacted properly and could be read on a smart phone.  This showed:

  • Schools minister Lord Nash and a DfE official asked for ‘careful consideration’ about how the data should be published.
  • The first option would be to publish as ‘part of a wider data set’ about academy conversions. 
  • Lord Nash wanted the transfer costs ‘pulled out’ to decide whether publishing them in the wider data ‘actually highlights high rebrokerage costs’.
  • If option one was ‘found to not be particularly suitable’, officials should explore a second option to publish in DfE annual accounts or in ‘another large data set’.

Freedom of Information (FoI) experts told Schools Week the DfE had ‘potentially breached the law over the information it redacted’.  The redaction may have breached section 77 of the FoI Act, the only section of the action which can lead to a criminal prosecution.

Schools Week has referred the case to the Information Commissioners Office.

Neil Carmichael, chair of the education select committee, told ministers in February to ‘get a grip’ and ensure ‘the highest levels of transparency and accountability’ over academy spending.  But DfE foot-dragging and muddying over rebrokerage is anything but transparent – it’s an attempt to obscure the data and put off its publication for as long as possible.

NOTE:  I was unable to give a link to the Schools Week article at the time of writing.   It's now been embedded in the article.

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