Free schools pose a threat to FOI which the Big Society will only make worse

Updated to clarify that  Free Schools are covered by FOI once they open, but the process of opening one, and the dialogue with the charity which helps set them up, isn’t.

The Guardian has an interesting follow up to the story about education secretary Michael Gove opting for a Googlemail account over his government email address, which prompted fears he was doing it to dodge Freedom of Information requests.

One of Gove’s bigger policy announcement has been the launch of free schools, which the Department for Education, in brilliant government speak, describes as follows:

Free schools are all-ability state-funded schools set up in response to what local people say they want and need in order to improve education for children in their community.

But if you want to know what’s going on in one under FOI, you might struggle – because they aren’t covered by FOI until they open. So if you want to oppose a free school, find out why it’s being opened or what the impact will be, you can forget it. Why? According to the Guardian, the body tasked with drumming up support for free schools, the New Schools Network, is a charity therefore isn’t covered by FOI. It’s doing the government’s work, but away from the spotlight of transparency.

The Guardian reports that the New Schools Network also sees itself as being above Parliamentary Questions too:

Dominic Cummings, a confidant of Gove who was freelancing for the charity at the time, told a senior civil servant: “NSN is not giving out to you, the media or anybody else any figure on ‘expressions of interest’ for PQs, FOIs or anything else. Further, NSN has not, is not, and will never answer a single FOI request made to us concerning anything at all.”

Cummings is now a political aide to Gove, and one of the chaps mixed up in the ‘send it to Googlemail, I’ll answer your emails there, not on my government account‘ affair too.

Putting aside how utterly dodgy Cummings and Gove look when it comes to transparency, there are two things worth noting here.

First, we’ve been here before. Academies, the Labour initative to try and open up access to running schools, have only recently come under the FOI Act. I know of Academies who even refused to release their GCSE performance to local papers because they felt they didn’t have to. Free schools are controversial and of the public interest before they open, so FOI should apply then. If a regular secondary school was planned by the council, all documentation would be available for scrutiny. So, too, should information about free schools.

Secondly, Free Schools embody the principle of the Big Society – passing responsibility for running aspects of the state to private organisations, charities or other bodies. There is a very real risk that it will become harder to monitor what goes on with public money if the Big Society ethos spreads across government unless the government insists that wherever public money goes, the principle of FOI goes too – all the time.

At the moment, they’re not saying that. David Cameron promised the most transparent government ever. Gove, as education secretary, is leading the Big Society charge – at the expense of transparency. Secret state, here we come?

2 comments

  1. Good point about the Big Society posing risks to general cause of greater transparency in private and voluntary sector. Councils have their faults but at least councillors can fulfill a role as important watchdogs – who will be watching over all these new social entrepeneurs using public money under the Big Society? What happens when they go bust or fail?

  2. Wonder if they can be got under contracts between public authorities and contractors by FOI on Gove’s office? (for all the good that will get us with the gmail fun and games at the moment)

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