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Promoting openness as a principle

Governing bodies must make sure they comply with the Freedom of Information Act, says David Sassoon

Is your governing body up to speed on the requirements of the Freedom of Information Act 2000? All public bodies (including governors) are required to have "publication schemes," detailing the information a school routinely releases to the public and where it can be found.

This is part of the open government agenda, which the Prime Minister and his colleagues are anxious to promote, but which they occasionally fall foul of themselves. The Act now promotes the principle of "the right to know" replacing the earlier "need to know".

The Act amends the Data Protection Act 1998 and brings in a new era of openness. Whereas the Data Protection Act gives a person the right to ascertain what information an institution holds on herhim, the Fo... Act enables a member of the public to access all other information, subject to exemptions. It covers all information held, regardless of the form in which it is kept. Staff should be aware of this, as their day-to-day notes could also be open to public disclosure if requested.

So what does this mean for a school governing body?

* As from January 1, 2005, each governing body must have in place a publication scheme that is open to scrutiny from parents and the community.

The DfES has agreed a very helpful scheme with the Information Commission, which, if adopted by the governing body, does not need approval. Bespoke schemes need the commissioner's approval and should have been submitted to him by February 28, 2004. If your governing body does not have a scheme, there is no point in wanting one unique to the school because the deadline passed more than a year ago.

The scheme will set out those types of information that are available to the public such as the minutes of the governing body (at least non-confidential matters), the governors' reports to the annual parents'

meeting, the school prospectus and policies, inspection reports and the action plans based on them. Personal information on pupils and staff is exempt from the categories of information that may be made available.

Information relating to such matters should be kept at the school for six years. The governing body should decide what to do with the records after this time.

* Have arrangements in place for dealing with requests. A valid Fo... Act request should be in writing, stating the inquirer's name and correspondence address and describing the information requested.

To whom would requests be directed? The headteacher ought to be the first point of contact, though shehe could delegate the work to a colleague.

* Carry out a public interest test once a request for information has been submitted. Some information may not be disclosed because of its sensitivity and could be subject to absolute exemptions. Other information could be grouped into the qualified exemption category. Decide if applying the qualified exemption test outweighs public interest when the information is disclosed. If not, the school must disclose.

* Assess whether a third party would be affected by the disclosure. If so, it would be courteous to consult the person affected and deal with any concerns that shehe may have. In the final instance, a decision may have to be taken that the information cannot be disclosed, in which case the person requesting the information must be told.

* Where information is refused, the inquirer should be told that shehe can use the complaints procedure. This procedure could also be used if the inquirer feels that shehe has been treated shabbily by the school when asking for information. Any member of the public can make a formal complaint to the Information Commissioner by writing to him at Wycliffe House, Water Lane, Wilmslow, Cheshire, SK9 5AF.

* Decide whether the estimated cost of complying with the request will exceed pound;450. You can take account of staff time in collecting the information, which is calculated at pound;25 an hour. If the cost of the exercise breaches the limit, your governing body can refuse access. If it is under pound;450, you can charge for reasonable expenses, provided that you have stated this in your publication scheme.

* Note that all requests should be handled within 20 working days.

* Treat members of the public who ask for information courteously. Refusing information without giving reasons could land the governing body in trouble. Remember too, that it is a criminal offence for anyone to alter, deface, block, erase, destroy or conceal information to prevent disclosure.

* Prepare yourself for this new openness by ensuring that all records are fit for purpose, written with a view to them potentially being read by a complete stranger. Ensure that filing systems at the school are such that information open to public scrutiny is easily accessible.

More information fromInformation Commissioner: Department of Constitutional Affairs: foiindex.htm Department for Education and Skills: Line: Tel: 08000 0722181

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