I have just started a PhD in Education because I want to build on a pamphlet I wrote called: “The 6 Predictable Failures of Free Schools…and How to Avoid Them” My intention in the booklet and my dissertation is to start from the premise that Free Schools are a reality of the British education landscape and so we must learn – as quickly as possible – about how to make those schools great. One way to do this is learn from previous mistakes, as well as from excellent schools. Drawing on work from Free Schools in the US (aka ‘charter schools’) I discuss the crucial importance of the before-the-beginning phase. How people plan for schools can often be make-or-break as decisions made during this high-pressured time will remain part of the school culture indefinitely and significantly impacts the likelihood of success.
To help with initial papers I’m writing about my research I decided to make some Freedom of Information requests so that I have more actual data on which to base my ideas. I asked for two pieces of information: 1. The completed application forms of Free School applicants who have now opened a school or who were rejected and are no longer competing for a school, and 2. The letters sent to rejected Free School applicants which detail the reasons for their application being turned down.
Sensitive to the fact that people do not want their failures made public I added the following caveat:
“It would be entirely appropriate to redact the name and addresses of applicants, receivers of letters and/or remove other details that could identify individuals.I would also be happy to accept data where the school name has been removed although I would expect an explanation for why it was felt necessary to complete this step.”
Then I looked for other people’s requests and found something odd
To make sure no-one else had asked for this information I looked around the FOI request website. Surprisingly few requests have been put in for any Free School information beyond info usually asked for of all schools (names of headteachers, numbers of pupils, etc.)
But the two requests that had been put in for interesting Free School material were now significantly delayed AND no further information was given when asked about the delay. This request asks for information about Free School pupil numbers, funding and withdrawals of funding:
This made me a little concerned about my own request. But I waited to see if I would hear anything. My 20 day mark was yesterday, 29th October, and sure enough the date has come and gone without any word from the Department for Education. In that time most other requests for information about other issues in the DfE have been granted. Indeed, my own (separate) request for information about teacher turnover was dealt with (even though it was refused on the (probably) fair grounds that the information wasn’t held in an easily accessible format).
What is so special about Free Schools that information about them is simply treated with silence?
There have been some examples in the past where people requested information about Free Schools and it was turned down. These cases were then referred to the Information Commissioner. Maybe these results can tell us why there is a silence?
Another clause used to get out of the request was the fact that the policy was in development. Well, it’s not anymore, so I don’t think that counts anymore.
The next main clauses used were from Section 36 clauses of FOI which suggested that releasing the information would stop the fair and free deliberation of a proposal, and might affect the the effective conduct of public business. However, the same FOI release explains how proposal forms are provided to New Schools Network for the purpose of helping people apply to open a Free School in the future – this demonstrates how the information is helpful in learning about what works, and does not work. If the true purpose of these schools is that anyone in a local community can open such a school it is vital that this information be shared widely and not only syphoned uncritically through New Schools Network.
Furthermore, New Schools Network are an independent organisation given contracts to run the advice service for potential Free School applicants. Their contract was competitively won in the last round, however only one group was able to ‘bid’ against them and the imbalance in that race is most clearly shown in the information released showing why the second bigger could not achieve criteria which required you to have ‘knowledge’ of the application process and to have experience in advising new schools. One obvious reason for the bidder not being able to get this knowledge is the lack of information available to any other provider on Free Schools about those who are winning schools and those who are not. Without the information I (and others) have asked for being more widely available it will be impossible for anyone to fairly compete against NSN to offer Free School advice services. Such uncompetitiveness is not just unfair, it can also drive up costs as NSN effectively become a monopoly in this market.
What do you think? Are there good reasons for denying FOI requests about Free School applicants?
I am genuinely open to the idea of Free Schools and the good they can do. I genuinely want to research them and spread as much information about them as possible. But I also realise that in my enthusiasm for sharing ideas I might be missing something. So my questions is this: Am I being unreasonable in my request? Am I being unfair in complaining here about this silence? Is there a way I should be thinking about this information which means it is justifiable in NOT being made to the public even though I have said it can be anonymised?
Also, if the DfE do not respond, is it reasonable to ask for an internal review or even ask for a review of requests about Free Schools as a whole? As someone who has been in classrooms for the last 6 years I am only a fledgling at this research stuff – I’m not a journalist, I’m not a legal expert, etc and I really don’t want to tread on toes but sometimes things are so important you need to at least ask the question. So: Am I being unreasonable? Any answers?