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Tribunal ruling on free schools favours transparency

18 January 2013

THE British Humanist Association (BHA) is celebrating the unanimous verdict from the Information Tribunal that the identity of applicants hoping to open free schools must be disclosed to the public.

On Tuesday, the Tribunal rejected an appeal by the Department for Education (DfE) against a ruling by the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) in July that "the balance of public interest favoured disclosure."

"The Free School programme involves substantial public funds and significant changes to the way the education service is controlled, managed, and delivered," the tribunal judge wrote. "It is a matter of considerable public importance, and the transparency of the process and its openness to public debate and consideration are of concern to communities across England."

The requests for information about applicants to the programme were first made to the DfE in June 2011 by the Association of Colleges, The Guardian, and the British Humanist Association (BHA). The latter sought information about the name, location, and faith of proposed schools.

The requests were rejected on the grounds that information about applicants would be published in future, but the ICO rejected this argument and ruled in favour of disclosure.

In its appeal to the Information Tribunal, the DfE argued that the identity of applicants who made it through the first stage of the process would be revealed. It also argued that potential applicants could be deterred from applying if unsuccessful first attempts were publicised, and cited the prospect of such applicants' facing campaigning from the BHA. Its survey of 100 applicants found that almost half (44) said that the prospect of disclosure would have made them less likely to apply.

The Tribunal was "unimpressed" by this evidence, and described the survey as "deeply suspect".

On Tuesday, Richy Thompson of the BHA said that the ruling was "a victory for transparency and democracy. It is vitally important . . . that the public is able to have its say in the decisions as to which proposals merit funding."

 

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