The ruling from the Information tribunal in the case of a Freedom of Information (FOI) request on Steiner schools is out today.
The Department for Education (DfE) had claimed that information relating to the decision to approve Steiner schools as part of the Free Schools programme should be withheld from the public, but today the decision is that the documents, with the exception of a few paragraphs, must be released.
The British Humanist Association (BHA) applied for the documents under the Freedom of Information Act back in 2012 and it has taken this long for the matter to reach a conclusion after the DfE appealed against the Information Commissioner’s original decision to that it would be in the public interest to have the information released.
The Department for education‘s refusal to release the documents included the argument that it would damage the commercial interests of existing Steiner schools to do so.
We have been wondering why these *commercial interests* should be deemed more important than the right of parents to know all about a school they select for their child.
From page 11;
The Commissioner pointed out that free schools were a radical new policy –
there was heavy public interest in this new policy especially in relation to
schools with a special philosophical or religious element. Steiner schools
in particular have unique philosophical features and the public is entitled
to know how the DFE has engaged with those unique features. The
Commissioner further contended that it was strongly in the public interest
for there to be a fully informed debate about Steiner schools. The local
community and parents thinking of sending children to a Steiner school
should have an opportunity to engage in an open debate about the
philosophy of the school.
During the tribunal it emerged that there was a further document held by theDfE that fell within the scope of the original FOI request from Richy Thompson of the BHA;
“The Commissioner contended that the request covered far more items in the newly discovered document than the DFE were prepared to accept.”(page 9)
In other words, there were documents the DfE claimed were not relevant, but that the Commissioner decided to include. In May 2012 the DfE had informed the BHA that it did not hold minutes of meetings or agendas in relation to anthroposophy and Steiner schools within the free schools programme.
The DfE argued that disclosure would result in a loss of public confidence in their own policy on Steiner free schools, but this argument was not upheld.
From page 12 of the tribunal decision;
The Commissioner … contended in relation to the ‘loss of public confidence’ argument:
The risk of negative publicity is already there. Criticisms of the type that concern the DFE are already in public arena…The DFE is seeking to ‘cotton wool’applicants and insulate them from this type of high-level criticisms…. These schools are engaged in an advocacy task – persuading a local community that their school is the place to be. As part of that advocacy they should be able to take on and answer criticisms. The applicants should perfectly well be able to look after themselves.
Oh, they can look after themselves, alright. They are used to fending off arguments and using spin to do so.
As mentioned in a previous post the BHA has reason to believe that the Education Secretary overruled his department when allowing Steiner Schools as Free schools.
Clearly these documents contain information of interest to parents, and as a result of today’s decision they must be released within 35 days.
Here is the link to the decision.