BHA and Information Commissioner dispute Gove’s reasoning for withholding list of Free School proposals
February 20th, 2013
Information Commissioner Christopher Graham has responded to a letter from Secretary of State for Education Michel Gove, rejecting in strong terms his reasons for having refused to release a list of all proposals to establish Free Schools. The information was published yesterday after the British Humanist Association (BHA) and Commissioner won a case against the Department for Education (DfE) at the Information Tribunal, following on from a Freedom of Information request submitted by the BHA in 2011.
Alongside the publication of the information, Mr Gove wrote to Mr Graham and said that:
‘there are people who are ideologically opposed to the Free Schools programme and some of the opposition to the programme has gone further than normal healthy debate. We are aware of personal attacks on individuals who simply want to improve educational standards and choice locally… We have been told of instances where teachers have lost their jobs simply by virtue of their association with a Free School application
‘it is for these reasons that we must be very careful when it comes to the information we publish about the programme. We want to make sure that people are free to open Free Schools without fear of reprisal or backlash, and parents are free to choose the education they want for their children, whether in a Free School or any other establishment, without intimidation.
‘I would defend, to the death, the right of anyone to oppose Government policy. I do not believe however that it is right to facilitate the targeted intimidation of brave people acting on noble motives.’
In his reply, Mr Graham has written:
‘While I note your strongly held views, strongly expressed, I will only observe that both the Commissioner and the Tribunal have taken careful account of all relevant factors in arriving at a balanced judgement as to where the public interest lies. Your Department’s arguments clearly failed to convince. I note that you chose not to exercise your right of further appeal to the Upper Tribunal.
‘I do not for a moment accept that the publication of the material that you are obliged by law to make public today in any way “facilitates the targeted intimidation of brave people acting on noble motives”.
‘I will join you in defending the right of anyone to oppose (or support) Government policy. But I will also defend the operation of the Freedom of Information Act in the public interest.’
In its decision last month, the Tribunal ruled that:
‘The Tribunal considered that the Appellant’s evidence with respect to prejudice to individual teachers by reason of the fact of their association with a Free School proposal coming to the knowledge of the private school which employed them was imprecise and uncertain; in any event they had successfully vindicated their rights in the employment tribunal.
‘The information sought by the Second Respondent [the BHA], name, local authority area, name of previous school, name of the project, faith (if any), year of application, are as the Commissioner argued in his submission “of a high level and does not reveal the detail of each application itself”.’
In its submission to the case, the BHA argued: ‘the teachers won a claim for unfair dismissal. While it is very unfortunate that these teachers were dismissed in the first place, this clearly demonstrates that such dismissal would be unlawful – a message which the DfE should have little difficulty making schools aware of. In any case, the BHA would reiterate that individuals’ personal details are outside the scope of the case, and would therefore not anticipate this issue becoming any more frequent.’
BHA Faith Schools Campaigner Richy Thompson said, ‘We welcome the Information Commissioner’s strong rebuttal of Mr Gove’s reasons for not wanting to see this data published. The Government failed to provide any good evidence to the Tribunal that the publication of this data was likely to result in additional individuals being identified. In fact, the Tribunal considered that the evidence the Government did provide was “poor”, and said that it “was surprised that a Department of State should have chosen to rely on a survey which even on its face was of doubtful reliability but which on further analysis is deeply suspect.”’
For further comment or information, please contact BHA Faith Schools Campaigner Richy Thompson on 0781 55 89 636 or at firstname.lastname@example.org or BHA Head of Public Affairs Pavan Dhaliwal on 0773 843 5059 or at email@example.com.
The BHA has put the data in a spreadsheet for convenience: http://humanism.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/List-of-proposed-Free-Schools.xlsx
Read the previous BHA press release, ‘Government releases list of proposed Free Schools to BHA’, 19 February 2013: http://humanism.org.uk/2013/02/19/government-releases-list-of-proposed-free-schools-to-bha/
Read the previous BHA press release, ‘Landmark Freedom of Information victory for BHA vs Department for Education’, 15 January 2013: http://humanism.org.uk/2013/01/15/landmark-freedom-of-information-victory-for-bha-vs-department-for-education/
Read the Information Tribunal’s decision: http://humanism.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/20130115-Decision-EA20120136-0166-0167.pdf
Read more about the BHA’s campaigns work on ‘faith’ schools: http://www.humanism.org.uk/campaigns/religion-and-schools/faith-schools
The British Humanist Association is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people who seek to live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity. It promotes a secular state and equal treatment in law and policy of everyone, regardless of religion or belief.