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DfE not playing by rules over free school info, campaigners claim

The Department for Education has been criticised for refusing to publish any documents which could help explain why it took so long for police to begin investigating alleged fraud at one of its flagship free schools.

Freedom of Information campaigners are concerned about the blanket rejection of a TES request for internal DfE communications relating to concerns about King’s Science Academy, Bradford.

They claim the Department’s decision not to publish any of the documents at all, raises questions about “how accurately” it is following Freedom of Information (FOI) law.

The DfE has told TES that all the correspondence is exempt from the request under the FOI Act either because it contains personal data or because it could prejudice the detection of crime or the administration of justice.

But Maurice Frankel, director of the UK Campaign for Freedom of Information, said: “It is rare for all the material to all be exempt in this way and you would normally expect some of the documents or some part of the documents not to be exempt.

“The question is whether they have actually applied the exemptions in the correct way by examining each document individually or have just thrown these exemptions at everything they found and just assumed that one or other will stick to everything.”

He accused the DfE of taking a “very defensive” approach about requests relating to free schools.

Controversy has been growing about the way the DfE handled financial mismanagement at Kings Science Academy since October, when a leak forced it to release findings of its own investigation into the school.

Last week an MP accused the department of “colluding” with Sajid Raza, who was suspended from his post as academy principal after being arrested and bailed last month by detectives investigating alleged fraud at the school.  

The DfE probe into finance at the Bradford secondary revealed the school had spent nearly £60,000 of a government grant without any evidence of what it was used for, including £10,800 which was “supported by fabricated invoices for rent”.

A five month delay in the start of the police investigation has been blamed on a Home Office error. However an FOI response suggests that the DfE did nothing to rectify the error even after it was made aware of the problem.

TES attempted to discover more with an FOI request for all DfE internal correspondence relating to the Kings Science Academy case between May to October.

The DfE has refused to release it, citing the FOI exemptions relating to personal data and criminal investigations.

Education Secretary, Michael Gove, used the same rationale in a written statement to yesterday saying that Parliamentary questions about financial management at Kings Science Academy would not be answered until the police investigation had concluded.

He said he was acting on advice from detectives. West Yorkshire Police have confirmed they asked the Department not to release exempt material that “could prejudice the ongoing investigation”.

But the TES asked for any correspondence to be released that was not covered by such exemptions, a point Mr Frankel suspects the DfE has ignored.

“FOI has become very contentious in the Department for Education over the use of private email accounts and over the defensive use of exemptions to avoid disclosing names of bodies that have proposed free schools,” he said.

“There are question marks over exactly how accurately they are applying the FOI rules.”

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