Delayed publication of free school impact assessments – what is the DfE trying to hide?

Janet Downs's picture

By law, the Education Secretary must ‘take into account the impact on other schools when assessing Free school applications.’    But how do we know if the Education Secretary has really taken impact into account unless assessments are published?  

It took months of campaigning for Freedom of Information (FoI) warrior Laura McInerney to force the Department for Education (DfE) to release approved free school application forms.  

When Laura began her search in October 2012 she found a request had been made in 2010 for the forms’ release.   The DfE had refused saying the Government ‘had a “firm intention” to publish the forms at a future point…’

Two years had passed since the declared intention to publish but the forms had not appeared. 

Eventually approved free school application forms together with impact assessments were published and continued to be released up to 2015.  Then publication ceased.

I’ve long lobbied for impact assessments to be published.   But I’ve been put off.  The DfE uses the same excuse – it will release the information when it is ‘ready for publication’.  

It is not reasonable for the government to be expected to release piecemeal information in advance of its planned timetable and planned publication,’ the DfE said.

In November 2017 I asked for details of the planned timetable.  The reply was rather vague: the ‘timeline’ was ‘likely to be early in the new year’.  

It’s now May and the DfE hasn’t published the impact assessments.   I feel as if I’m lashed to the Maypole and the DfE is dancing around tying me in knots.

I asked the DfE in February if it would adhere to the new Code of Practice for Statistics issued by the UK Statistics Authority (UKSA) and specify a release date for impact assessments.     I was told they weren’t covered by the Code.  

I wrote to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) on 30 March asking them to ‘give a ruling on an acceptable time limit for the publication of information in which there is a public interest.’   The ICO said it ‘cannot make a ruling of the nature you have specified’ because it ‘can only consider requests for information in accordance with the Freedom of Information Act.’  

The ICO had ‘no remit’ to rule on whether the DfE was complying with the UKSA Code of Practice.

What is the DfE trying to hide?  Impact assessments showing a negative effect on nearby schools, perhaps?   Or maybe that a new school wasn’t needed because existing schools had surplus places?

Over five years ago, Laura McInerney asked:

‘What is so special about Free Schools that information about them is simply treated with silence?’

This could be updated to:

‘What is so special about Free Schools that information about them is simply kicked in the long grass?’

Delayed publication makes a mockery of the Government’s commitment to transparency.

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