DfE secrecy fuels fears it ‘has something to hide’

Government declines to release papers from crucial headteacher board meetings
25th August 2017, 12:00am
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DfE secrecy fuels fears it ‘has something to hide’

https://www.tes.com/magazine/archived/dfe-secrecy-fuels-fears-it-has-something-hide

How do you know why an academy trust took over your school, why a free school opened in your area, or why your school’s application to expand was rejected?

For communities affected by such far reaching decisions, it can be near impossible to find out, because regional schools commissioners (RSCs) and the headteacher boards (HTBs) that advise them do not publish their reasons.

Protracted freedom of information battles eventually persuaded the Department for Education (DfE) to release two heavily redacted sets of HTB documents in the past year - papers that form the basis for choices involving millions of pounds of public money.

These papers showed that a significant amount of information about these decisions that was in the public interest was routinely withheld from the public.

In one case, a previously unknown meeting of a headteacher board of which there was no public record was discovered. In other documents, discussions about the futures of schools that were not mentioned in the published minutes were discovered.

Now DfE officials have said that even FoIs will no longer be an avenue to access full sets of HTB documents. This month they refused a request for such background papers on the basis of time and cost.

Lack of transparency

For Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, the department’s decision is “a very surprising response that is likely to feed a lot of thinking that there is something to be hidden”.

He argues that the lack of transparency matters for parents and communities “who would be seriously upset that so many decisions are being made so quickly and potentially not being put into the public domain”.

In turning down the most recent Tes request for HTB background papers, the DfE says the documents would have to be redacted to remove information that was personal, likely to prejudice the “commercial interests” of academy trusts or that if released would make it harder for officials to offer free and frank advice.

It adds that removing all this information “would place a considerable burden and a significant strain on the department, in terms of time and resource” because “the exempt information cannot be easily isolated, because it is scattered throughout the requested material”.

Critics point out that it is the whole approach used by the DfE to hold the meetings and compile the accompanying documents - with no thought for separating exempt material - that makes their release so time-consuming.

The way the papers are written contrasts to the rules the government requires local councils to follow in the interests of openness and transparency.

Local authority committees have to publish their reports and meet in public, with anything that meets strict definitions of confidentiality contained in a separate section which is discussed in a separate closed session.

Embracing openness

Robert Hill, an education consultant and former Downing Street adviser to Tony Blair, is “not at all clear why massive redactions are justified and are necessary”.

“Even if some redaction is required because, for example, there is some reference to the competence of the principal or members of the trust board, it would be perfectly possible to construct a format for HTB meetings that follows the spirit if not the letter of the access to information arrangements that councils have to follow and operate a public Part A and confidential Part B agenda,” he says.

“The DfE should embrace openness as a spur to academies to improve their governance, performance and operations.”

Records of HTB meetings are routinely published but they are extremely brief. In one cycle of meetings, for example, England’s eight HTBs considered 1,016 pages of documents, but only 32 pages of minutes were put online.

In turning down the latest Tes freedom of information request, the DfE said the previous release of papers was “made in goodwill” so that the requester would be in a better position to make narrower requests in the future. It added that the published HTB records of meetings “can serve as a useful signpost for selecting information”.

Maurice Frankel, director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, says “if the minutes are not giving a reasonable summary of everything that’s being discussed, it’s very difficult for them to argue that the cost of answering the request is disproportionate”.

He believes the solution lies in the DfE publishing fuller minutes, or writing the HTB papers “with a view to disclosure of more information”, making it quicker and easier to redact exempt information.

A DfE spokesperson says: “Freedom of information rules are designed to ensure transparency while protecting taxpayers’ money from being wasted on unnecessarily broad requests that would take too long to carry out.

“In this instance the department has provided advice on how to amend the request so it does not waste publicly funded resources and is more likely to be released. Anyone who is unhappy with the response they receive is free to make a complaint and contact the Information Commissioner’s Office.”


@geomr

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