The tribunal which forced the Department for Education to release documents about The Education Fellowship Trust has wider implications for the entire academies transfer system, says Warwick Mansell.
In rejecting the DfE’s argument for secrecy, ‘The DfE should – should – find it harder to rely on a sweeping use of the “likely to prejudice the free and frank provision of advice/conduct of public affairs” exemption to block FoI requests,’ he writes.
The judgement criticised the approach taken by schools minister Lord Agnew, the ‘qualified person’. The Freedom of Information Act only allows a ‘qualified person’ to decide whether to reject FoI requests. The tribunal ‘found it unhelpful that the QP’s opinion here is as brief as it is.’ The reason Lord Agnew gave for refusal was an ‘opinion’. He had made ‘no attempt to explain the prejudice nor to cross-refer to any submissions or analysis undertaken by the DfE’.
Wawick summarises: ‘one of the biggest implications of this case comes from the refreshing sense of having a completely independent body take a look at key aspects of how the DfE’s structure operates and finding it – at best – highly questionable.’
The judgement added: ‘The academies policy has been controversial and there is clearly a strong public interest in how [academies] operate.
The DfE has always been excessively secretive about academy transfers. I had to go to a tribunal to force the DfE to release the costs of transferring 23 academies between September 2013 and October 2014. Even after the court said the figures should be released, the DfE still dragged its feet. The then schools minister Lord Nash even discussed ways in which the information could be hidden in a larger dataset.
Details of grants and advances to academy trusts are also difficult to obtain. My FoI requests for the 2018/19 amounts have been refused.
The same lack of transparency surrounds free schools. Laura McInerney also had to go to court to force the DfE to release free school application forms. Free school impact assessments aren’t published until long after a free school has actually opened. It would be more useful to councils, parents and locals if they were published during the proposal stage.