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For the first time, Government provides BHA with names of Free School applicants – prior to deciding which to open

The Department for Education (DfE) has for the first time provided the British Humanist Association (BHA) with the names, locations and religions of Free School applicants in response to a Freedom of Information (FOI) request submitted by the BHA asking for this information, which the BHA is publishing today. The BHA has been fighting to obtain this information at a formative stage for four years now, leading to a string of decisions against the DfE from the Information Commissioner’s Office and Information Tribunal (who are responsible for ensuring compliance with the FOI Act). The BHA has welcomed the publication.

In total there were some 148 applications to open Free Schools during the eighth wave of applications (which will open in 2015 or beyond). 41 of the applications are religious or pseudoscientific, including:

  • Eight applications for Church of England schools (in Kent, Southwark, Cumbria, Surrey, Cornwall, Birmingham, Swindon and Hounslow).
  • One application for an Exclusive Brethren school (East Anglian Primary Academy in Norfolk). Proposals from the Exclusive Brethren have invariably been rejected due to concerns about community isolationism and the teaching of creationism as science and as a result have largely ceased.
  • Eleven other applications for Christian schools, including two from YMCA groups (in Havering, Croydon, Greenwich, Redbridge, Nottinghamshire, Hertfordshire, Greenwich, Milton Keynes, Kent, Surrey and Lancashire), one of which would be a special school and another alternative provision.
  • Two applications for Hindu schools (in Redbridge and Croydon).
  • Eight applications for Muslim schools (in Manchester, Bradford, Harrow, Birmingham, Bolton, Coventry, Lancashire and Waltham Forest). One, Feversham Girls Academy, is from Feversham College, an existing state Muslim school that was at the centre of controversy last year after it was found to have been illegally requiring its entire staff to be women.
  • One application for a Jewish special needs school (in Barnet).
  • Two applications for ‘multi-faith’ schools (in Manchester and Stoke-on-Trent).
  • Five applications for Sikh schools (in Hertfordshire, Ealing, Nottingham, Reading, Southampton).
  • Three applications for Steiner schools (in East Sussex, Cornwall and Gloucestershire). One of the Steiner applications, Stroud Academy, does not have ‘Steiner’ in the name as it is not going to be affiliated to the parent body, the Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship, after SWSF concluded that the bid ‘did not meet its criteria for membership’. SWSF hold the rights over the name ‘Steiner’. This may work in the group’s favour as other Steiner groups have concluded that as a result of recent controversies the DfE is no longer approving Steiner school proposals. Stroud Academy has been invited to interview.

Since June 2011 the BHA has been campaigning to force the DfE to release the names, locations and religions of Free School proposals prior to it deciding which it backs to open. In January 2013, in a case pertaining to waves one and two, the Information Tribunal ordered the DfE to start providing this information as soon as it has it, but since then the DfE has continued to refuse to do so – instead rejecting FOI requests until it has announced those it supports. The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) twice reiterated the Tribunal’s decision (in cases pertaining to waves four and five), rejecting the DfE’s attempts to rely on different exemptions from the Freedom of Information Act in order to refuse disclosure. Last year two further ICO cases (with respect to waves six and seven) ended prematurely when the DfE withdrew its position and published the information requested. This appeared to be prompted by the BHA having requested an ‘enforcement notice’ against the DfE, i.e. a fixed decision that would apply for all future waves.

With respect to wave eight, the BHA again requested the information in November. This request was initially rejected on the basis that it is ‘information intended for future publication’ – in spite of this reasoning having previously been rejected by the ICO. However, after an internal review, the DfE decided to provide the BHA with the information.

In doing so the DfE said ‘I would like to reiterate that this list is only being supplied to you. The list will be published on the GOV.UK website at a later date once the wave 8 free school interview rounds have finished.’ But the BHA has decided to publish the information anyway, both because the BHA believes that this information should be available at a formative stage, and because if the BHA can obtain it under FOI, so can anyone else.

BHA Education Campaigner Richy Thompson commented, ‘We welcome the Department for Education providing this information sooner than it has done in the past. Before the Free Schools programme it was always the case that the public knew who was applying to set up schools locally before any decisions about the proposals were taken. The fact that in recent years this has not been the case has represented a serious democratic deficit and we are pleased that this is starting to be rectified.

‘However, we remain concerned about the large number of applications from religious groups. It is vital that every school is equally inclusive to all children, parents and teachers, regardless of their religious or non-religious beliefs. By definition religious schools seek to divide on this basis and the increasing proportion of such schools within the state-funded system is an ongoing issue.’

Notes

For further comment or information, please contact Richy Thompson on 020 7324 3072.

See who the latest proposers are: https://humanism.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/List-of-proposed-Free-Schools.xlsx

The BHA has produced a timeline of its cases at the ICO and Information Tribunal asking for the details of Free School applicants: https://humanism.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/Timeline-of-the-BHA%E2%80%99s-FOI-requests-for-names-of-Free-School-applicants.pdf

Read more about the BHA’s campaigns work on ‘faith’ schools: http://www.humanism.org.uk/campaigns/religion-and-schools/faith-schools

View the BHA’s table of types of school with a religious character: http://www.humanism.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/schools-with-a-religious-character.pdf

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.

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