West London Free School Funding Agreement

Amy Lassman made this Freedom of Information request to Department for Education

This request has been closed to new correspondence from the public body. Contact us if you think it ought be re-opened.

The request was refused by Department for Education.

Dear Department for Education,

Please publish the details of the funding agreement signed last week by the Secretary of State with the West London Free School.

I request that the decision to publish this particular free school
funding agreement be made in accordance with the law.

Yours faithfully,

Amy Lassman

Department for Education

Dear Ms Lassman,

Thank you for your recent email. A reply will be sent to you as soon as
possible. For information, the departmental standard for correspondence
received is that responses should be sent within 20 working days as you
are requesting information under the Freedom of Information Act 2000.

Your correspondence has been allocated the reference number 2011/0020332

Thank you.

Central Allocation Team

Public Communications Team

Tel: 0370 0002288
www.education.gov.uk

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Department for Education

Dear Ms Lassman,
Thank you for your request for information dated 7 March 2011 in which you
made the following request:

"Please publish the details of the funding agreement signed last week by
the Secretary of State with the West London Free School.

I request that the decision to publish this particular free school funding
agreement be made in accordance with the law".

I have dealt with your request under the Freedom of Information Act 2000
("the Act").

The Department holds the information you have requested, but it is being
withheld because an exemption under Section 22 of the Act applies.
Section 22 provides for information to be exempt from disclosure where
the information is held by the Department with a view to its publication
by the Department or any other person at some future date, it was so held
at the time your request was made, and it is reasonable in all the
circumstances that the information should be withheld until that date.

Section 22 of the Act is a qualified exemption which means that a public
interest test needs to be carried out, and in doing so the following
factors have been considered:

* It is acknowledged that there is a general public interest in
disclosure because of the need for there to be open and transparent
government and that the sharing of information with the public should
be free and open.
* However, the public interest in permitting the Government to publish
information in a manner and at a time of its own choosing is also
important. It is part of the effective conduct of public affairs that
the general publication of information is a conveniently planned and
managed activity within the reasonable control of the public
authority.
* The Government has already determined that it will publish Free School
Funding Agreements on the Departmental website in due course.
* It is not reasonable for the Government to be expected to release
piecemeal information in advance of its planned timetable and planned
publication of Funding Agreements, and there is a strong argument in
favour of allowing everyone to view this information at the same
time. If it were to release this information as requested on varying
occasions this would result in partial information being released over
a protracted period leading to confusion and inaccuracy.

The arguments for and against release have been considered and it is our
view that the balance of public interest falls in favour of the
maintenance of this exemption in relation to the information relating to
this request.

If you have any queries about this letter, please contact me. Please
remember to quote the reference number above in any future communications.

If you are unhappy with the way your request has been handled, you should
make a complaint to the Department by writing to me within two calendar
months of the date of this letter. Your complaint will be considered by
an independent review panel, who were not involved in the original
consideration of your request.

If you are not content with the outcome of your complaint to the
Department, you may then contact the Information Commissioner's Office.
Yours sincerely,

Fran Sims
Free Schools Group
[1]www.education.gov.uk

Your correspondence has been allocated the reference number 2011/0020332.

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References

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Dear Department for Education,
I wish to appeal a decision to withhold information requested under Freedom of Information.
The case reference is 2011/0020332.

Original Request, 7th March 2011
My original request was for a copy of the signed funding agreement between the Department for Education and the West London Free School, announced on March 1st 2011.
http://www.westlondonfreeschool.co.uk/bl...
The West London Free School is the first “free school” with which the Government has contracted to provide funds in order to establish a new state-funded independently-run school. This being the first in a new class of schools, it has attracted considerable interest from the public, Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition in the Houses of Parliament, teaching professionals, unions and local and national media.
Despite the signing of the agreement, the government has not published it over a month later.

Decision Notification, 1st April 2011
The decision stated that the department holds the required information.
However, they would not provide the information, claiming an exemption under Section 22 of the Freedom of Information Act. They stated they intend to publish the Department at a future date.

Section 22 of the Act is a qualified exemption. The decision considered the qualifications as follows.
The respondent stated that information may be exempted if “it is reasonable in all the circumstances that the information should be withheld.”
The respondent stated that a public interest test had been carried out, and that the arguments against disclosure outweighed the public interest in providing the information.
They restate the general principle of Section 22 that “the public interest in permitting the Government to publish information in a manner and at a time of its own choosing is also important.”
Further, and more specifically, they claim an argument predicated on prejudice, specifically that “piecemeal information in advance of its planned timetable and planned publication of Funding Agreements... would result in partial information being released over a protracted period leading to confusion and inaccuracy.”

Grounds For Appeal
Section 22 is a qualified exemption.
A request may only be refused if:
* It is reasonable in all the circumstances that the information should be withheld from disclosure until the future date of publication (Section 22(1)(c))
* The public interest in maintaining the exemption outweighs the public interest in disclosure (Section 2)
There are many factors to take into consideration here.
The Department, in its response, has only taken into account an argument based on prejudice.
Specifically, it states that release of “piecemeal information” may lead to confusion and thus misunderstanding among interested parties, which, in this instance, would include the local and national media, unions, teachers, the local Member of Parliament, Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition in the Houses of Parliament, and others.
This argument fails to meet the requirements of the public interest test.
I contend that the statement regarding prejudice is overly cautious.
The “free schools” project aims to allow non-education professionals, for example, groups of parents, to create and administer schools. It is, therefore, by its very nature, in the realm of the amateur.
Comprehension of a funding agreement would reasonably be within the realms of the aforementioned interested parties.
The funding agreement, according to the West London Free School, is a highly significant document. Their website describes it as “a contract between the Secretary of State for Education and the Trustees of the school setting out the terms on which he agrees to finance the school. He can terminate the agreement in certain exceptional circumstances, but shutting down schools is never popular and he’s usually required to give seven years notice. For that reason, it’s not something he enters into lightly. He has to satisfy himself that the school can meet various educational standards, that it has found a suitable site and that there will be sufficient parental demand to make it financially viable in the long term. Perhaps most importantly, it’s an act of trust. From now on, the Secretary of State’s reputation will be tied to the performance of your school.”
http://www.westlondonfreeschool.co.uk/bl...
As such, given the significance of this document in the State’s decision-making, it can and must be considered on its own merit. Indeed, the Department for Education, consider it to be a central document in their decision to contract to fund a project that may require millions of pounds from the public purse.
Given the timeliness of this debate, the Department failed to take into account several factors that would weigh in the favour of disclosure, as highlighted by the Information Commissioner:
* Publication of the funding agreement would further the understanding of and participation in a highly relevant and contemporary political debate.
* Publication of the funding agreement would promote accountability and transparency by the Department for their decision-making. By being able to view the merits of the West London Free School’s application, a fuller understanding of the reasonableness of the Department’s decision to award a contract could be reached.
* Given the extensive debate on the value-for-money of free schools vis state-run schools, the public interest is likely to be served in the context of value-for-money in private sector delivery of public services in this sector.
* Given the extensive opposition to the “free schools”, publication would allow individuals and companies to understand decisions made by the Department that affecting their lives as well as the local and national schooling ecosystem.
It should be noted that the Freedom of Information Act promotes a “right to know”. The Department for Education and the Secretary of State has come under considerable criticism by Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition and the House of Commons Procedure Committee for failing to answer Written Parliamentary Questions.
http://www.thisislondon.co.uk/standard/a...
http://www.labourlist.org/unclear-fundin...
The decision to withhold information is based on specious reasoning and does not adequately consider the extent of the public interest in providing this information. Further, it constitutes an erosion of the “right to know” by withholding a document that has formed a singular critical component in a major decision which holds considerable public interest and is deserving of intense scrutiny.
I therefore request immediate provision of the funding agreement.

Further Rights of Appeal
I understand my right to refer your decision on this appeal to the Information Commissioner, and, subject to reconsideration by your department, would expect to do on the grounds of a breach of Section 1(1) pursuant to a failure to fully consider the public interest and an unreasonable decision to withhold information.
Yours faithfully,

Amy Lassman

Yours faithfully,

Amy Lassman

Department for Education

Dear Ms Lassman

Thank you for your recent email. A reply will be sent to you as soon as
possible. For information, the departmental standard for correspondence
received is that responses should be sent within 20 working days as you
are requesting information under the Freedom of Information Act 2000.

Your correspondence has been allocated the reference number 2011/0027647

Thank you.

Central Allocation Team

Public Communications Team

Tel: 0370 0002288
www.education.gov.uk

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Department for Education

Dear Ms Lassman,
I refer to your request for an internal review which was received on 4^th
April. You requested an internal review of our response of 1^st April
2011, which stated that the Department holds the information requested but
that it is being withheld because an exemption under Section 22 of the Act
applies.

The Department has now completed its internal review process and has
carried out a thorough review of the case, chaired by a senior officer who
was not involved with the original request. The Department has decided to
uphold the original decision not to disclose the information concerned,
for the same reasons set out in the letter of 1^st April.

The Department is aware of the public interest in this information and
intends to release it in due course, as set out in our previous letter.
However, the review panel upheld the decision that it is appropriate for
the Department to publish Funding Agreements in a manner and at a time of
its choosing. It is important that Free School proposers are able to
focus on preparing their new schools for opening to ensure the highest
possible standards for the children who will start at the Free School in
September. Releasing the information at a time of the Department's
choosing will enable Free School proposers to deal with questions at an
appropriate juncture and enable them to remain fully focussed on key
preparations for their school and its pupils.

If you are unhappy with this decision, you have the right to appeal
directly to the Information Commissioner. The Information Commissioner can
be contacted at:

The Case Reception Unit

Customer Service Team

Information Commissioner's Office

Wycliffe House

Water Lane

Wilmslow

Cheshire

SK9 5AF

Further information about the Information Commissioner's complaints
procedure can be found on the Information Commissioner's Office website:
[1]http://www.ico.gov.uk/complaints/freedom...
Yours sincerely,

Fran Sims
Free Schools Group
[2]www.education.gov.uk

Your correspondence has been allocated the reference number 2011/0027647.

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Communications via the GSi may be automatically logged, monitored and/or
recorded for legal purposes.

References

Visible links
1. http://www.ico.gov.uk/complaints/freedom...
2. http://www.education.gov.uk/

Amy Lassman left an annotation ()

I have sent a complaint to the Information Commissioner.