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Freedom law puts staff on the spot

Heads and governors fear schools are not ready. Karen Thornton reports

Spot checks are to be carried out on whether schools in Wales are complying with new freedom of information laws - and heads and governors fear most are not.

They are warning that new legal requirements on providing information to the public could add to bureaucracy and even damage working relationships within schools. But officials involved in policing freedom of information say they have worked hard to reduce the paperwork involved.

All schools (except nursery schools), were meant to have adopted a "publications scheme" by February 29 this year. This sets out what information the school publishes (or will publish), and whether it makes any charges for supplying information.

The Government has produced a "model" publication scheme to save schools having to create their own. Annual reports to parents, minutes of governors' meetings, school policies (for example, on the curriculum, bullying and sex education), and test results and targets for each key stage group are included in the list of information that schools should publish.

Schools using the model scheme do not have to notify the information commissioner's office that they are implementing it. But if spot checks reveal a large number have failed to adopt the scheme, the office could require every school to confirm it has an alternative in place.

Hugh Natale, governor of a primary school in Cardiff, said he feared that discussions between heads and governors would become constrained because of the possibility they could be made public.

Speaking at Governors Wales's summer conference in Llandrindod Wells, he said: "When it comes to meetings, people are going to feel restricted in what they can say. That will damage the effectiveness of governing bodies."

Anne Hovey, regional officer with the National Association of Head Teachers Cymru, believes only a minute number of schools are up to speed with the requirements. She fears a "bureaucratic quagmire" of correspondence in disputed cases, until case law develops on what has to be disclosed under the Act - and what does not.

Ian Walley, a compliance officer in the commissioner's office, said spot checks would start after the summer holidays. He said: "We are aware of the problems schools have with paperwork. We tried to help by producing a model scheme and not requiring submissions. We would be concerned if a lot of schools have not adopted this scheme."

The commissioner's office is adopting a "softly softly" approach to schools. But ultimately, those that refuse to comply with the new laws could face enforcement notices and legal action.

At the same conference, Governors' Wales delegates unanimously passed a resolution calling on the Welsh Assembly government to provide more funding for workload reforms in schools.

Carol Sayce, chair of governors at Portmead primary and a member of the board at Bishop Gore secondary, both in Swansea, said: "The prime concern is that adequate funding is not available to meet needs without cuts being made elsewhere in the budget.

"Already there are enough difficulties, with at best standstill budgets for this year and redundancies in some schools. We want the workload agreement to be successful and to bring the envisaged benefits to staff and children."

Delegates also voted in favour of all governors being subject to full criminal checks, and called for clear guidance on what previous convictions might prevent an individual from becoming a governor.

Hugh Pattrick, vice-chairman, from Powys, said: "Children have a right to feel safe everywhere, and particularly in our schools. The guidance from the Welsh Assembly is very wishy-washy."

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