Government releases list of proposed Free Schools to BHA

The Department for Education (DfE) has today released a list of the names, locations and religious designations of all Free Schools proposed to open during waves one to three (i.e. from 2011-13) of the Free Schools programme. The release has come in response to a Freedom of Information (FOI) request submitted by the British Humanist Association (BHA) in June 2011, and a subsequent Information Tribunal case which the BHA won over the DfE last month.

In June 2011, the BHA submitted a Freedom of Information (FOI) request to the DfE, asking for the name, location, and faith (if any) of each group which had applied to open a Free School as part of the ‘first’ or ‘second wave’ of proposals, which opened from 2011 and 2012 respectively. The BHA made this request after the second wave of groups had applied to the DfE, but before the DfE had decided which groups it wanted to publicly back to open.

Currently, the DfE only publicises proposals that it has decided to support to open – 33 schools in the first wave, and 55 in the second. It does not publicise any proposals that it declines to back – 290 in the first wave, and 226 in the second. In addition, it doesn’t publicise any proposals until after it has decided whether or not to support them.

The DfE rejected the FOI request and argued that the information is exempt under a section of the FOI Act – a decision which the BHA appealed in September to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO). In July 2012, the ICO decided that  that the DfE had been wrong to consider the information is exempted by the Act, and ordered the DfE to release the information. In August, the DfE appealed the decision and two others on related matters to the Information Tribunal, with the BHA being added as the only other party to the case. Finally, in January, the Tribunal ruled in the BHA’s favour, agreeing that the information should be released.

BHA Faith Schools Campaigner Richy Thompson commented, ‘We’re very pleased that the Government has decided to release this information. We believe that the previous lack of transparency in this area represented a democratic deficit, with the public being unable to know who was applying to set up schools with state funds until after those schools have already been backed by the Government to open. Hopefully that should now change.’

Responding to Michael Gove’s letter to the Information Commissioner regarding the release, Mr Thompson commented, ‘It is worth remembering that the information being released here is only the names, locations and faith (if any) of proposals – not the names of individuals involved. The Information Tribunal considered in depth arguments as to whether individual teachers could face dismissal as a result of this information becoming public, and concluded that there was no basis to believe that there was – such dismissal would be unlawful.’

With regards to the data contained in the release, Mr Thompson concluded, ‘We haven’t had much time to analyse the lists yet, but we will say that we believe the true number of religious schools is likely to be a third to 50% higher than what the data implies. This is because it only shows schools with a formally designated religious character, and not those with a “faith” ethos.’ Academies and Free Schools can be religious without formally designating as ‘faith’ schools.

The DfE did not release the proposed religious designation of any first wave proposals, because it didn’t ask applicants this. But between the second and third waves, there were 518 proposals. Of these, there 81 were Christian (of various denominations – including 14 Plymouth Brethren and 1 Greek Orthodox), 31 were Muslim, 8 were Jewish, 7 were Sikh and 2 were Hindu.

The BHA has an identical FOI request related to the fourth wave of proposals, due to open from 2014, pending a decision from the DfE, and hopes that information will be released before it has decided which applications it wants to support to open.

Notes

For further comment or information, please contact BHA Faith Schools Campaigner Richy Thompson on 0781 55 89 636 or at richy@humanism.org.uk or BHA Head of Public Affairs Pavan Dhaliwal on 0773 843 5059 or at pavan@humanism.org.uk.

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, ‘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: https://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.