After three years, two court cases, endless emails, and a new interpretation of the law to try and stop it, the Department for Education have been ordered – yet again – to provide me information about free schools.
The independent commissioner at the ICO has ruled that releasing the rejection letters sent to free school applicants is strongly in the public interest and outweighs purported disadvantages.
But: there is a new twist I have now been told that the DfE has ‘lost’ 41 of the letters.
How this has happened is unknown. The ICO judgment states that “searches” have been undertaken on both the DfE’s old and new servers. And yet: nothing.
To say that I am disappointed isn’t just an understatement. It’s untrue. I am bloody furious. Not throw-things-at-a-wall furious. More boiling seething mad-at-the-injustice fury.
The lost documents aren’t in just one set of information. I asked for letters sent to three different cohorts of free school founders and some have disappeared from each group. Which means this wasn’t just one isolated incidence of incompetence. It wasn’t a box left on a train or some ‘water damage’. It is, at best, administrative incompetence across three years.
WHY THE HELL DIDN’T SOMEONE TELL ME SOONER? When I asked for the information in 2012 Wave 3 rejections had literally only just happened. Deleting information after someone has requested it is a breach of the Freedom of Information Act and, if found to be done intentionally, is a criminal offence. So this information has presumably been missing the entire time for the last 3 years and – what? – no one checked? How is this possible? Information had to be handed over to judges. The files were counted and calculated in agonising detail for their ‘burden’ levels in the court submissions. It was on that basis I lost my original court case. So how is it only now that someone has realised so many of them, across so many different cohorts, are missing?
This entire request was based on a conversation I had with a leading academic on US free schools back in September 2012. She studied them for over twenty years and told me that one of the most important things for ensuring quality is transparency and analysis of decision-making. Back in 2012 when I made the request that was my entire aim: analysing the information to improve schools. That is all I have ever been trying to do. But as the information no longer exists we have lost one of the best learning opportunities for our school system forever.
The completeness really matters. There was a reason I asked for all the documents and not just some. I wanted to compare the consistency of information and how it changed. We will never know if these 41 letters had contrary advice that could give an insight into the policy or if they showed a particular change in direction.
Finally, to put it bluntly, I am pissed off that time has been wasted. I pushed on because I believed all of these documents existed and that the public interest would be served by their release. To make it happen I spent nights away from my family writing submissions. I spent weekends immersed in law books. I talked to endless numbers of free school founders who wanted answers to how and why rejections or acceptances were made. If the DfE think dealing with me is a burden they should have seen how frustrating it was on this side of things. What it was like to constantly harangue the courts for information because no one properly explains it to you. To read dismissive legal documents written by well-educated lawyers tearing into your inevitably non-professional arguments. To be talked down to by a judge – in a packed courtroom full of civil servants – who interrupts the moment you start talking, patronisingly telling you that while non-lawyer people don’t normally get to ask questions he’ll “see how you go”. Because I can say that, from this side of things, to have gone through all that, and then to be met with a ‘Oops. We no longer have all the things that we thought we did – MASSIVE SHRUG’ leaves me utterly, achingly embittered.
The upside is that this judgment should now secure the release of the 590 letters which the department do have. To avoid it the DfE would need to go to court again and while I can’t count that option out, I hope they won’t.
Instead, what I hope is that persistence has won out and that the public can have the information they should have had all along. It’s just a shame that 41 files, and my trust in transparency, have been ‘lost’ in the process.
On Sunday journalists were spat at outside the Conservative conference in Manchester for doing their job. At the same time, in the same place, I moved around the protest without experiencing any of this. In fact, I’d already written the first half of this blog before I even knew it had happened.
It is plainly not okay for anyone to be gobbed on as they go about their business.
But here’s the protest as I experienced it.
The crowd around me explodes into noise.
“Stop taking pictures of us you f***ing *****” “Do you have the right to do that? Do you? Wankers!”
A young lad, about 18 with auburn curly hair and baggy grey jogging bottoms, makes the loudest comment.
“Why are you doing that from four floors up? Come down and take our picture if you want it.”
I’m stood amid a group of men aged 18 to 40, almost uniformly dressed in grey hoodies. They are part of the People’s Assembly protest gathering in Manchester’s Great Northern Square outside the Conservative party’s annual conference. It’s 10.45am on a Sunday morning.
The group caught my eye as I walked down the road from the Radisson Blu hotel – a place so swish it smells of expensive perfume. Pootling around ready for a fringe event I would later be chairing I’d collected my conference press pass a few minutes earlier and was walking back towards my hotel.
As I did, I noticed an angry bearded man with matted hair, holding a pair of black trainers in his hands, and walking in threadbare socked feet as he yelled at a policeman. Men in hi-vis jackets (working for an acronymed security company) were leaping out of vans and setting up barriers around the plot of grass which sits right in front of the Great Northern Quarter, overlooked by a huge brick converted warehouse, and alongside the conference entrance.
More dishevelled men were walking across the road. All white, all male, all looking as if they’d slept little for days.
One of the men asked if the police were completely blocking off the square. At this point I was curious. Were they being stopped from protesting? Aware that I was tottering in heels, wearing a bright pink coat, and holding a conference brochure I was a bit hesitant about asking further questions. The get-up shrieked I’m a tory. But a press pass isn’t just there for access to nice-smelling hotels. So I started to follow them.
“Is something going on in the square?” I asked the man, who later told me his name was Andy.
“It’s the People’s Assembly, they’re having a protest,” he said in thick Mancunian accent.
“Are the police going to stop it?”
“They can’t,” he said, nodding to the converted warehouse, “there’s an AMC cinema in there, and businesses. They can’t afford to stop them being open. They won’t mess with the businesses”.
I explained I was journalist. They seemed fine. We kept talking.
A small group showed me the tents on the square where people had camped overnight, and described the protest’s centre at Piccadilly Gardens from where they had arrived.
I explained I wrote about schools. They told me of the Facebook page where I could look to see People’s Assembly’s education events and asked me about prison education. (They are worried about cuts).
Callum, the oldest-looking in the crowd, with a startling similarity to Timothy Spall, talks bluntly but smartly about Noam Chomsky, totalitarianism, Trident. His points are astute even if I don’t always agree. The whole group are excited that Corbyn is due to visit.
During the conversation people wander in and out. Some look as if they are struggling with drug addiction; one has tobacco-stained fingers the colour of a chain-smoking 100-year-old. But they are sensitive to one another and keen to help me. They are worried that violent tendencies will mean the loss of their message and talk about the police with calmness, “They largely do their job well, just on occasion they go overboard.”
And then. It explodes.
From several floors up in the warehouse they hear a shout. I don’t hear it. But they seem to.
Camera lenses are suddenly pointing out of several of the windows – snapping away. Producers, photographers, on-lookers, all looking down from their lofty positions. The anger among the crowd swells.
Andy pulls his hood up, Callum starts pacing, many of them start shouting.
The young auburn-haired lad, circling from around the edges, now steps out in front of the crowd and starts yelling skywards. In his thick Manchester accent he wants to know from the camera people what rights they have to photograph him. He swears. He tells them he’s going to go up there and batter them.
Two men come out of the tents, waving sticks and middle fingers.
My heart sinks. Every time one of them throws their arms out or points their stick, I know the photographs are getting better and better. Every swear or insult proves their unreasonableness.
Andy and Callum know this too. “Stop being so aggressive,” they hiss at the young man.
“It’s a public car park. I’m going to go up there and get them,” he replies, shrugging his shoulders furiously and puffing out his chest.
“Why don’t you just ask them to come down here?” Callum says sharply, “Tell them if they want pictures of us to come down and ask us what we’re doing.”
The weariness of the group is palpable. I feel entirely torn by it. On the one hand I know why the photographers are four floors up. They’re awaiting the march. A fourth storey is a perfect vantage point from which to record it. While waiting, it makes sense to get some other shots. The group’s over-reaction is perfect.
At the same time, I can see how it feels intrusive. Here we are talking about Chomsky but me and the young men know that if the pictures are printed they will simply say ‘yobs’.
“They don’t even know our name”, says Andy.
Shortly after leaving the group I head to a fancy coffee shop on a parallel road. I order a flat white coffee and a bakewell slice. It costs six quid. The room is filled with smartly-dressed people who, like me, are here early for conference and who, also like me, are hiding in the comforts of somewhere warm, clean, ‘civilised’. It’s the sort of place most of us spend our lives, I suspect.
I think about Andy, Callum, and the angry young man. It strikes me that perhaps the ‘new politics’ isn’t so much about a lurch to the left as it is about recognising that the people on the ground want the people on the fourth floor to know their names. Or at least have the decency to come down and ask.
By 2pm I have watched my first fringe event within the boundaries of the actual conference. Education secretary Nicky Morgan has said all the right things and I have tweeted and written and clapped.
As I walk towards the exit reading social media on my phone I notice that journalists are rightly furious because one of them has been spat on by a protester. The picture lays bare the grim reality. Up ahead the police are telling people to hide their passes. There is panic in the air.
Knowing I must go back to my hotel regardless of the situation I decide to walk back across the square. If things turn nasty I hope I might be able to find Callum or Andy. Or that someone might remember me as the girl with the pink coat from earlier and go easy. As I head out onto the square the protest is snaking around it. A choir of middle-aged women stands along one side of the road singing an adapted hymn about the bedroom tax. It is haunting and powerful. The tent group are mostly wearing face masks. I can’t see anyone I know.
I start talking to two security guards from the Great Northern building who are out on the square for a better view.
One has a thick scouse accent: “It’s all fine. The worse thing is when it gets violent, then the media will start saying that it’s everyone, and the words get lost, that’s bad, that means you’ve lost the message, but there’s good and bad in everyone, and look at all these people, and it’s fine.”
They complain that health secretary Jeremy Hunt purposely came through the square where the protesters were standing.
“Everyone else has gone the other way but he came through here and he wonders why people are at him and that, but he came through here on purpose.”
I have no idea if he did or didn’t, but it does seem an unusual route compared to other politicians.
One of the security guards bristles as he sees two ‘leaders’ of the camp emerging from the protest, and heading to sit on a low wall by the grass. They’re the men I saw earlier coming out of the tents; waving fingers at the press. One is heavily tattooed, leaning on a walking stick, wearing a t-shirt with a comic cover, his eyes slowly rolling. The other is neatly dressed in jeans and a black bomber jack, but he’s agitated and gaunt. He has one visible tooth.
I wander over and ask whether anyone has told them to move their tents. They start explaining about Section 60s, and police ‘force’, and spraying down pavements. I don’t know what any of it means. I explain that I’m a journalist. We talk for a while about their grievances.
One of the pair, Tom, is angry that his sister’s benefits have been cut dramatically and she is struggling to feed her daughter. She was forced to attend a food bank last week, he says.
“Meanwhile they’re ordering 3,000 bottles of champagne into there at sixty quid each and yet they’re the ones using the police to protect them.”
I don’t know if his figures are accurate nor why his sister’s benefits have been cut. But it’s an anger-riling sentiment if you, like Tom, believe it to be true.
The other man, John, talks about his homelessness in the 90s. Eventually he went to university (John Moore’s in Liverpool) and wrote poetry for a while. He had a book contract, once. But he lapsed when his sister got ill. Now he is angry with the royal family.
“Things like the first world war were caused by royalty” he says, “We send our poorest to die for them… But why aren’t their children ever the first into battle?”
I have no answer.
After an hour of ducking and weaving in the crowd I head to my hotel, then back again, each time without a hint of anyone shouting directly at me. Across roads I see people in suits being heckled and others on mobile phones diving under police barriers and being escorted away. The chants of Tory scum are happening as I walk up to the entrance. I can hear them. I just don’t think of them as personal insults.
Inside everyone is sharing their experiences of being yelled at; of being called a Tory c***, of being intimidated, of the awfulness. I feel guilty for pointing out my take was so different. On Twitter someone suggests it’s because I’m northern and scary. In my ludicrous outfit and with an accent considered normal for the area, neither is true.
Instead, the fourth floor metaphor keeps coming back to me.
Protesters simply see people in suits walking away. It’s the symbol of what makes them most angry: being ignored by the wealthy. That’s why they yell. And, to them, a media who sticks a camera in their face to get a story without first seeking to understand is a parasite. Not Tory scum, but journalist scum. A part of the establishment that ignores its people. It doesn’t matter whether the nuance of that is true or not – that’s how they feel, and so they shout.
Sadly – inevitably – inside the conference gates I learn that the spitting, the yelling, and the aggression has only served to build the walls up further. “They don’t deserve my attention,” says someone who has been yelled at repeatedly. “Welcome to the new politics,” remarks another with disdain.
And so we waddle into the age old battle of the powerful and rational deciding that unless you can have a ‘civilised’ conversation then you’re not welcome at their door and the emotional crowd outside become angrier and angrier as their voice is dismissed for not being what is deemed civil while the people in power continue imposing cuts – a behaviour the protestors would argue is uncivilised – and they do so while applauding one another in a fancy conference centre.
No one should be spat on. No one should be dismissed as unimportant.
We must guard against the fourth floor crowd, who have the keys to the kingdom, barricading themselves in and dismissing the mob below. If that happens, the mass will increasingly want to come up and batter the ignorance out of them. And while, somewhere, on a metaphorical stair landing between the two, there’ll be me and Callum hovering around in our pink coats and grey hoodies trying to work out how the hell we get the two groups to talk sensibly, the fact is we have no clue of how to even begin. Writing up this experience was really all I could think to do.