Your information obligations

4th January 2008 at 00:00
It is very easy to be intimidated by things you don't think about very often - for example, when someone makes a request to the school for information under the Freedom of Information Act 2000. So it is as well to know what your obligations are and why the act exists.

The guiding purpose of the act is to increase the accountability of public authorities. As such, it most probably cannot be made to apply to independent schools. The status of academies has not been tested, but the Department for Children, Schools and Families believes that an academy is a public authority, and there is much to be said for this view. The act does apply to all maintained schools.

The act states the right of "any person" to have the public authority reveal whether information is held about them and to communicate that information if it is. The Information Commissioner will give a decision and follow up with an enforcement notice, if necessary. There are legal penalties for failing to comply with an enforcement notice.

There are exemptions, most of which apply to government, law enforcement, professional and parliamentary privilege and the security services. But some apply to schools: information already available elsewhere or intended to be published anyway (as detailed in the school's publication scheme); information that refers to individuals other than the person making the request; and information that would endanger an individual's health and safety are all exempt. It is best to check, if necessary, with the Information Commissioner's office before refusing.

But the information must exist before the request is made. A school asked by a newspaper or an individual for statistics that it does not collect does not have to start collecting them from scratch. "You cannot give what you have not got" is an old legal saying; and it applies here.

Richard Bird, Legal consultant to the Association for School and College Leaders.

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