It’s nearly three years since the Department for Education (DfE) published application forms for approved free schools. There have been none published since then.
A Freedom of information (FoI) response from the DfE acknowledges there’s a ‘general public interest’ in disclosing the application forms. There's a need, the DfE says, for ‘open and transparent government’.
But the DfE is hardly being open and transparent when it delays publication. Forms submitted for Wave 8 (2014) were published in July 2015. There is, therefore, no reason why approved free school application forms submitted in 2015 and 2016 shouldn’t have been published within the same time scale.
The DfE have always dragged their feet over publication of free school application forms. It took months of wrangling for Laura McInerney, FoI veteran and now contributing editor for Schools Week, to force the DfE to publish them.
Having been made to publish, the DfE is now using different excuses to shelve publication. Before Laura’s victory, these included claims that publication would ‘reduce the quality of future applications’ or deter groups from applying. Now, the DfE says iit will publish the forms at some undefined later date ‘at a time of its own choosing’ and claiming:
‘It is not reasonable for the government to be expected to release information, which may be unfair to individuals and their rights under the Data Protection Act’.
The forms, therefore, can only be published when they have been ‘quality assured to ensure protection of personal information of applicants', the DfE says.
But this personal information is already in the public domain. Those behind a trust proposing a free school are listed at Companies House. This applies even to trusts whose proposals were not approved. The people behind the controversial ‘military’ Phoenix Free School in Oldham, initially approved but then turned down, are listed in records for Phoenix Educational Limited. Someone ought to tell the New Schools Network, though. Its website still has an article saying the Oldham school will ‘instil courage, discipline and respect’ in its pupils.
When Laura won her ‘ludicrous battle’ to compel the DfE to publish free school application forms, the Information Commissioner said:
‘The Commissioner considers that the public interest factors in favour of the disclosure of the withheld information are very strong…Disclosure of the information would help to increase the transparency of the programme… ’.
But the DfE appears to be sidestepping this strong public interest by claiming it needs time for quality assurance. This is bunkum.