Long read: Does the DfE have a secrecy problem?

For years the government has pledged transparency – so why is the Department for Education still so secretive?

Martin George

academy, foi, freedom of information, tes, agnew, hinds, nash, academies, rsc, regional schools commissioner, htb, headteacher board, secret, secrecy, transparency

“This government has the clear ambition to make the UK the most transparent and accountable country in the world.”

So said Francis Maude, then Cabinet Office minister, in November 2010. Did anyone tell the Department for Education?

It was the year when Michael Gove and his tight-knit team of advisers started implementing their free schools and academies revolution at breakneck speed.

Those at the centre of government, from the prime minister downwards, rhapsodised about the benefits of transparency, but the new team at the DfE stood accused of actively seeking to avoid public scrutiny as they oversaw the most radical overhaul of the education system for generations.

Eight years on, and in very different circumstances, it is an attitude whose legacy can still be seen in the way the department operates today.

From a lack of transparency about decisions about academies and refusals to name academy trusts receiving massive taxpayer bailouts, to the academy minister’s conflicts of interest, secrecy too often remains the default position.

The veil of transparency

Cast your mind back to 2010.

It was the beginning of the Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government, and people around the prime minister, David Cameron, coming into power after 13 years of Labour rule, were evangelical about openness.

Ministers such as Maude and Oliver Letwin, and advisers including Steve Hilton, believed that more transparency would variously save taxpayers money by stopping suppliers ripping off the public sector, spur innovation and enable people outside government to carry out valuable analysis that would never occur to those in Whitehall.

But in the words of someone who was a government adviser at the time, “there was always a massive disconnect between what Cameron and Number 10 thought, and what Michael Gove and the DfE thought about this stuff”.

The latter “just thought it was a waste of time”.

He has a simple summary of the Govian view of transparency: “It’s all a contrived excuse to stop system reform happening, so sod all of that, just get on with that and do stuff.”

Another factor in government was a conviction that they had just five years to push through what they deemed necessary before they inevitably lost the 2015 general election following five years of austerity.

“You just had to get shit done, and if you just spent all your time consulting you would have got 50 free schools – and who cares? – and 200 academies converted – and who cares? The only way to [achieve real change], they thought, was just to go hell for leather,” says the adviser.

It was a mode of thinking that was personified by Dominic Cummings, the pugnacious Gove adviser who would go on to greater fame as a leading strategist behind the successful Brexit campaign.

Journalists at the time wrote about his efforts to block parliamentary questions about free schools and use of private emails to conduct governmental business in an effort to avoid freedom of information requests.

'Limiting exposure'

Back then, Gove and his team may have seen themselves as a buccaneering team of outsiders forcing radical change through a hostile establishment. Keeping information tightly controlled, and limiting the exposure to scrutiny, was a war-time necessity.

But times have changed. Eight years on, the outsiders have become the insiders, and academies and free schools are mainstream DfE thinking and embedded in the system – so much so that even Jeremy Corbyn’s education spokesperson, Angela Rayner, accepts that academies are here to stay.

So why the continued secrecy?

For Sir Steve Lancashire, an academy chief executive who until last year was a member of one of the headteacher boards that helps to make decisions about academies, the continued secrecy about how they operate is a legacy of the controversy during the early days of the academy reforms.

“I think it might be a product of the sector being so politicised and under so much scrutiny that almost ‘less is more, and let’s keep it as tight as we can’. Not particularly because there was anything to hide, but just it was a judgement call that it was easer that way.”

It is an analysis echoed by the former government insider.

“Partly, it’s just institutional thinking,” he says. “It’s not that long since it was the default approach.”

But it may also reflect the background of the powerful, unelected ministers who have been in charge of the academies system since 2013: Lord Nash and Lord Agnew. Both were parachuted into government after a lifetime in the private sector, where they were used to making executive decisions in an environment that did not require democratic scrutiny or openness.

Only last week the DfE refused to release the details of its conflict of interest agreement with Lord Agnew, now the minister in charge of the academies programme. Lord Agnew founded the Norfolk-based Inspiration Trust in 2012, and stood down as chairman when he became a schools minister in September 2017, but he remains a member and trustee.

The former insider says: “Partly, particularly around the academy agenda, you have a succession of nominally junior ministers but who are all powerful within that space, so John Nash was very much of the view that, ‘Don’t question me, I know what I’m doing. I’m going to run this my way – get out of my way,' and Lord Agnew is also very much of the ilk.”

Freedom of information

It is easy for parents, campaigners and journalists to put the case for transparency: they want to know how and why decisions that affect them are made, and be able to judge the effectiveness of policy and the use of public money.

What is the case from the other side, from those who sometimes want to refuse freedom of information requests, withhold records of meetings and not outline how taxpayers’ money is used?

The Freedom of Information Act itself says there are occasions when information should not be released. Some cases are more contested than others.

The legislation contains 25 clauses that set out information that is exempt, with reasons ranging from safeguarding national security and crime detection, to protecting legal privilege and communications with the Queen.

But when it comes to the Department for Education, the most commonly cited exemptions include information used for the formulation of government policy, personal information, and information that would “prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs” or “prejudice the commercial interests of any person” if it was released.

So much for the legal position, but what in practice are civil servants thinking when dealing with requests for information? Someone who has been in their place outlines their mindset.

“You started with the question ‘Why is someone asking?’, and someone’s asking because they want to prove that I’ve done something wrong or something embarrassing, or something that’s going to professionally embarrass my minister.

“When you start from the assumption that they want to know for mischievous or bad reasons, you immediately say, ‘Well, I don’t want to tell you. I don’t think you are asking for honest or normal or good governance reasons. I think you are asking to be mischievious, and I don’t want to tell you because I don’t want you to write something that is mean about me or about my minister.'

“You start from the default, and at the time that was pretty strongly held, even if it was never articulated, and my guess is that it is still part of it.”

And, he says, the legal exemption around the “formulation of government policy” is particularly valued by civil servants, who would feel unable to put in writing the potential pitfalls of policies, or worst-case scenarios, if they knew they would be released to the media.

And if civil servants did not have a protected space to give ministers frank advice, decision making would only be worse.

'Skimpy' minutes

But secrecy is not an inevitable feature of decision-making when it comes to education.

This week, Anne West, a professor at the London School of Economics (LSE), and David Wolfe, a QC at Matrix Chambers, contrasted the lack of transparency around academies with the legal requirements for transparency about non-academies.

In a report published by the LSE, they outline how decisions about maintained schools are taken by local councils in meetings that the public have a legal right to attend, while those about academies are “taken by the eight RSCs [regional schools commissioners], individuals appointed by central government”.

The public has no right to witness, or take part in, the RSC decision-making process. Instead, a record of decisions these officials have made is published weeks or months after they met the headteacher boards (HTBs) that challenge and advise them.

In the words of one headteachers’ leader, these minutes are, at best, “skimpy”.

And as Tes has reported, the voluminous background papers that give the rationales for their decisions are not published.

Even if they are finally obtained under freedom of information laws – often after many delays and appeals – the black ink of redaction is more eloquent about what matters to the DfE than the remaining sections of uncensored text.

In local government, where education committees meet in public, there is a legal framework setting out timescales within which reports have to be published ahead of meetings.

If the reports contain confidential material, perhaps sensitive information about individuals or commercial contracts, this is put in a separate section that is not published.

Last September, Sir David Carter, who oversees the academy system as national schools commissioner, expressed an interest in replicating this model for headteacher boards. His promise of more openness was reiterated by education secretary Justine Greening. 

And Sir Steve Lancashire, who for three years had direct access to the headteacher board documents and discussions that are denied to the rest of us, does not understand the continued culture of secrecy.

“I actually don’t understand why there needs to be a transparency issue,” he says.

“I can’t actually remember anything that we discussed during the three years that I was on that board that didn’t ought to be in the public domain.

“There are one or two sensitive bits that are about people or individuals who you don’t want to identify, but I personally don’t understand why we are still talking about transparency issues three years later.

“There’s no need for it.”

Shining a light

So will anything change?

The national schools commissioner told Tes last September that increasing transparency around headteacher boards would be a “priority” once new members of the boards were elected in October.

Only last week Sir David reiterated the point when he told the Bryanston Education Summit that improved transparency should be one of the education system's top priorities. 

But the records of HTB meetings held five months after the election results were announced remain strikingly similar to those before: “skimpy”.

With Sir David due to leave his role at the end of August, he will not be around to see through any greater transparency.

When Tes asked Justine Greening about secrecy in the academy system in September, she said: “I do want to see more transparency."

She, too, is no longer around to see this through, having left government in January.

In May, her successor made another promise of change. As part of Damian Hinds’ loosening of the school accountability system, the DfE published a document saying it would be “more transparent about how we take decisions about schools, and the role of headteacher boards in particular”.

Specifically, it said: "We will make available records of their discussions, and advance notification of which schools they are discussing, in order to make the system more transparent.”

Will this latest promise to open up the England’s academy system to public scrutiny be the game-changer many would like to see?

That remains to be seen, but the former government adviser is not holding his breath.

“I wouldn’t read too much into that. It’s the kind of thing you would say as a new secretary of state. It’s the kind of thing which you commit to doing, but I don’t think there’s any huge thing behind it.

“They probably are going to look at it, but whether they will do anything about it, I don’t know.”

The DfE was approached for comment.

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Martin George

Martin George

Martin George is a reporter at Tes

Find me on Twitter @geomr

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