In October last year the DfE refused my FOI request for (a) Free School application forms, and (b) the acceptance and rejection letters sent to applicants. After a long and ludicrous battle (started here), the Information Commission Office have released their Decision Notice about my case.
In sum: I won.
The ridiculously lengthy 17-page judgement demonstrates why the information must be made available to the public. Given its length I haven’t taken it all in thoroughly yet . But essentially the DfE’s claims that releasing this information would “prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs” came down to four arguments:
- It would reduce the quality of future applications
- It would reduce the DfE’s ability to figure out which applications were of high quality
- It would put people off applying in future (because they are scared off by scrutiny)
- Application forms & letters are not a good way to scrutinise school quality
The ICO recognised the DfE’s concerns but countered that some were poorly evidenced or did not constitute a genuine problem. For example, the DfE claimed that applicants might face demanding challenges from the public. As the ICO notes, people applying to run public services ought to expect demanding scrutiny.
My favourite part of the judgement, however, is Section 73. Here the ICO determined whether or not there is a case for releasing the information given public interest. Their conclusion is unequivocal:
“The Commissioner considers that the public interest factors in favour of the disclosure of the withheld information are very strong. The withheld information would provide considerable information about the implementation of a relatively new and very important educational policy and also provide information about the basis for decisions involving the expenditure of large amounts of public money. Disclosure of the information would help to increase the transparency of the programme…“
Transparency is all I ever wanted in this process. Not because I want to frighten potential free school applicants, or ruin a working policy, but because the freedom of information is a right when services are being undertaken at public expense. Because taxpayers are owed honesty. Because scrutiny steers a course towards better and more constructive policies. And – if for no other reason – than simply because, this is democracy and the law. No matter how much the government loves their flagship policy, they don’t get to shrug off democracy like an ugly accessory that doesn’t match their outfits.
So thank you, ICO, for helping get what is rightfully ours under the law.
DfE: You have 35 days to comply.
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