Free School FOI Turned Down….Again

Further to my previous blog pondering why Free School FOI requests are always turned down, I finally got a response to my own request today.

The response can be seen in full here, however the main gist is that the DfE feels releasing application forms and/or rejection letters would:

  • Encourage people to ‘borrow’ from successful application forms when making new proposals and this would stem innovation
  • Discourage people who were not successful from reapplying and, with the potential for embarrassment if rejections are made public, it would put off potential free school bidders in the future.
  • Be used against schools to say that they strong feedback was given before opening, and this is unfair given that they may well have now addressed those issues and will now be party to Ofsted inspections which are really what counts.

While in some ways I can see where the DfE is coming from I think it must be borne in mind that:

  • The information can be redacted. There’s no reason to know which school is which from feedback. If applications are not released and only feedback letters are granted there is definitely no way of knowing whose letter is whose.
  • Application forms are passed to New Schools Network who then advise applicants on their proposal. Given this, I don’t see how it can be true that the DfE don’t want people to see successful application forms in case they ‘copy’ them. Indeed, in the 2010 review by the Information Commissioner on this matter, the DfE said that it was wholeheartedly planning to publish successful applications – this is how it managed to get out of publishing them in 2010.
  • One of the comments made in the longer DfE piece is that it may encourage copying of proposals when it is inappropriate for the local need, but if so then the application will be rightly turned down. Furthermore, if there is diversity in successful applications (which one would hope there is given that the government specifically says in its reply to me that the purpose of the free school policy is innovation) then anyone reading the successful applications would know that it would be silly to copy just one type of school – after all, which one would you pick?!
  • Finally, I do think it is important that a process of tendering is transparent. I note that the DfE had no qualms at all about releasing the reasons for rejection of the group that stood against the New Schools Network to be the advisory body. They even named them. I therefore wonder if embarrassment on the part of schools is really the issue.

A few other oddities have been pointed out by people on Twitter:

@tiddymoke noticed that the Minister who has made the decision is Liz Truss. But she’s not in charge of Free Schools, Lord Hill is.

@StephenJMayo pointed out that private companies applying for several schools are at an advantage because they can recycle their own applications, and can work out what does and doesn’t work, but this information is not being more widely shared.