Free to ask all you like

18th March 2005 at 00:00
Freedom of Information is increasing parent power, but schools still have some discretion. Nic Barnard reports

Three months in and all seems quiet on the Freedom of Information front - but that could be about to change. Since January 1, schools have been required to make available most of the information they hold to anyone who asks for it. So far, feedback suggests that schools have either not been deluged with requests to open their books or have had no problems responding.

But with the end of the annual school admissions cycle, this could be the time that disgruntled parents demand information on why their lovely children didn't get the place of their choice.

"Anecdotal evidence suggests the (Freedom of Information) Act hasn't really had an impact on schools," says Jane Phillips, editor of the National Association of School Governors' magazine, Governors' News. "Partly that's because schools are pretty open anyway.

"But school places are being allocated about now. That could be a wake-up call to parents, and lead them to use the Act to find out what's been going on."

Schools make up around a quarter of the 100,000-plus public bodies covered by the Fo... Act 2000. It's unlikely to have the widespread impact of the earlier Data Protection Act, which gave individuals the right to see their own records, but offers the chance for parents and others to dig up useful information.

Dave Beresford, assistant secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, says there have been few calls concerning the Act but notes:

"We've had a couple of cases where people have got confused and wanted to see their personal files, which in fact comes under the Data Protection Act."

Other contentious issues are also covered by earlier legislation. The Environmental Information Regulations 1992 covers any inquiries relating to environmental matters - such as the sale of playing fields or the siting of mobile phone masts.

The Fo... Act mops up everything else. Parents campaigning against school closures or teachers concerned about restructuring, say, may find something of interest in LEA or governors' records.

Those choosing a place can ask to see statistical information before applying. Ofsted's Performance and Assessment Reports (Pandas) contain far more information than league tables, including comparisons with other schools with a similar intake. The results can be revealing - more so than league tables or value-added charts.

A year ago, schools were required to prepare the ground by drawing up a publication scheme. That sets out what information the school routinely publishes - say, the governors' annual report - and where it can be found.

The more fundamental change arrived on January 1. Since then, the public has had the right to ask a school if it holds a particular piece of information and to see it. Schools must respond within 20 days.

It means schools must know what information they have and where it is held.

All staff have to be familiar with the Act and know who is responsible for dealing with inquiries, because requests can be made to any member of staff.

Some schools have put up their publication schemes on their websites. That, says Phillips, who is also a member of an informal monitoring group drawn from police, schools and other public services, is good advice. The biggest challenge for schools has been record management.

"If schools do get requests, it's going to take a lot of admin time to deal with them because a lot of schools haven't kept their records in an appropriate form," she says.

That said, the law offers some opportunities to frustrate, or at least stall, inquirers. There are 23 exemptions under the Act - although not all are relevant to schools.

Information is exempt, for example, if it's already covered by the Data Protection Act or the Environmental Regulations. In other words, you can send callers away and tell them to come back with the right Act. If they are using the Data Protection Act there is a formal process to follow.

You can also send them away if the information is already publicly available, for example on an obscure corner of the school website. This is a popular strategy already widely employed by DfES press officers.

Similarly, information due to be published later may also be exempt, provided the timetable is reasonable.

Other exemptions include national security - not usually a concern for schools - and information relating to legal proceedings or criminal investigations. Oh, and any communications with the Queen.

The most frustrating exemption is likely to be on grounds of commercial confidentiality - especially in this era of private finance initiatives.

For many exemptions, schools do not even have to confirm or deny they hold the information.

"Vexatious" requests - commonly known as time-wasters - can be safely ignored. And schools are under no obligation to create information to satisfy a request. However, they are reminded they have a legal duty to provide "reasonable advice and assistance" even as they tell inquirers where they can stick their Act.

Still, at least those letters from Her Majesty can stay safely locked away.

What governors haveto do:overleaf DFES advice on the Fo... Act: www.teachernet.gov.ukmanagementatozffreedomofinformationforschools Model schemes from information commissioner: www.informationcommissioner.gov.ukeventual.aspx?idAdvice on retaining records from Records Management Society: www.rms-gb.org.uk

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