The Government Department That Stole Christmas

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It was 9.05am when I rang the tribunal office to find out if the Department for Education would be appealing the Information Commissioner’s decision against them. Again.
I wanted to know if I would find myself in court defending a request for information I first made to them in 2012. Again.
For a short moment a reprieve looked hopeful.
“No, can’t see an appeal listed here,” said the man with a polite but gruff voice.
But I’ve been here before. I remembered his polite but gruff voice. And I awaited the next step.
“Just hold the line while I check to see if anything came in the final post last night,” he said.
This is where it all fell down last time. Back in December 2013 I’d called at 3.05am from a kitchen in Missouri, USA (where I lived at the time). The exact same man had said the exact same thing about checking the post then too. I was silently dancing on the kitchen tiles – careful not to wake the neighbours at such an unholy hour – when he came back with the news he presented this time too.
“Oh, no, I’m wrong! They have in fact put in for an appeal. Yes, it’s here.”
The little rotters. That’s what went through my mind on both occasions. What an absolute pain in the arse.
“Have they asked for an on-paper hearing?” I asked, hoping, fingers crossed, that perhaps we could all be spared the courtroom dramas and have the whole thing finally finished off by email.
“No, they’ve asked for an oral hearing in London,” the man said.
Ugh, I thought. Deep super not-dancing-on-any-tiles ugh.
*
And so it is that for the fourth December in a row I am reading up on case law and preparing arguments, all just so I can get my hands on a set of school documents that up until 2010 had always been open to the public.
So let’s rewind. How did this happen?
December 2012 – Earlier in the year I had asked for the decision letters sent to groups applying to open new state schools (also known as ‘free schools’). On a whim I also asked for the application forms submitted by the groups – something I would later regret.  Reasons for why new school proposals were accepted and rejected were publicly open until 2010. (Just like they still are for, say, putting up a conservatory on your house or opening a pub). At the time I assumed the government simply hadn’t published them because the Department for Education (DfE) kept shifting their website and the free schools process was quite new.
By December 2012 I learned the DfE were adamant they would not release the documents  even though every FOI expert I spoke to told me transparency in this case should be a no-brainer. Hence, I spent New Year’s Eve in 2012 writing to the information commissioner’s office (ICO) for an independent review.
December 2013 – After waiting 11 months for the ICO to rule, they finally ruled strongly in my favour. The public interest would best be served by the documents’ release, they said, and ordered the Department for Education to hand over the docs. Only, the DfE decided not to hand them over and instead appealed. On the grounds that the request was ‘vexatious’ because it would cost too much to comply with. A fact they hadn’t mentioned once in the previous 14 months of wrangling. I spent that new year writing my first ever court submission.
December 2014 – On a rainy day in June I faced the DfE’s claim that my request was vexatious, and as I boarded a flight in July I found out they had won – sort of. Because I had asked for the letter and the application forms, – and the removal of personal data from the former was so extensive – the judge decided the entire request was ‘burdensome’. But the head of the DfE’s free school group clearly said while on the witness stand that if I had asked just for the letters on their own (the thing I most wanted) that these would not have been considered too burdensome. The day after the judgment I submitted a reduced request for just the letters. The DfE refused to budge. Again. Twice. Last Christmas I wrote again to the ICO asking for another independent judgement.
December 2015 – All of which takes us to now. After waiting another 10 months for the ICO to make the exact same decision they made in 2012 – (no, I can’t fathom why it took that long either) – the ruling was exactly the same. The public interest was in favour of disclosure and the DfE had to hand over the docs. Only this time the DfE added a twist: they had lost 41 of the documents.  (No, I can’t fathom how that happened either).
And then they appealed. The rotters!giphy (1)
Hence, for the fourth year in the row, I will spend the upcoming family holiday writing yet another court submission which this time, coincidentally, is due on New Year’s Day.
Forget rotters. From now on I’m tempted to call them the ‘Grinch’.
The Department for Education have literally stolen my Christmas. Four times.

After a 3 year battle the DfE now claim they have 'lost' 41 free school letters

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.
Here’s why:

  1. 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.
  2. 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?
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
foi no i

Kentucky Fried Schools: Are Academies a "trade secret"?

As explained a while back, I am currently in the process of studying academy providers who applied to run schools under the Targeted Basic Need Programme.
One of the things I requested under the Freedom of Information Act was the plans submitted by academy trusts as part of their pitch to run schools. In most cases the trusts were ‘approved sponsors’, which means they have already passed through the government’s approval process. Most sponsors already run schools – many run 4 or more.
I was therefore surprised to find that one of my requests for these plans has been turned down on the grounds that the plans constitute a “trade secret”. This is a real exemption under the FOI Act, and it sits within Section 43 which covers information that could prejudice commercial interests. There are some quite generic parts of Section 43 – so, you might simply claim that releasing the information will affect your ability to make profit (though this is quite difficult if the info is about a non-profit academy trust), or you might argue that the information will make it difficult for you to buy goods at a reasonable prices (where a school is negotiating a contract for a building this might be important).
But the respondent specifically cited that their use of Section 43 was because the schools’ plans were considered “trade secrets”.
This struck me as odd. Children are not Coca-Cola: they can inform us what is being done to them. Also, academy trusts are paid for by a top-slice from school funds, which means they are basically paid for by the state. (Some also have additional donations, but mostly it’s a % fund from the school). There is no ‘trade’ happening here. This isn’t like Kentucky Fried Chicken where the secret recipe is protected so you have to go and fork out for it. Academy trusts are not allowed to make profit.
Hence, the use of ‘trade secrets’ was weird. I’m not sure if it’s a misunderstanding about the law (theirs or mine), or a genuine belief that academy trusts are somehow ‘special cases’. I‘ve written before, however, about some academies refusing to share resources, This sort of secrecy bothers me because the teacher time going into those resources has usually been paid for by taxpayers; and if taxpayers are paying for a good then I don’t see why it should be trapped in the hands of just one school. Admittedly, some resources are hard to share. I’m not suggesting children should be able to wander around randomly using each school’s sports facilities, for example. But when it’s a case of sharing documents at the click of a button, and the reason given for non-disclosure is that schools want to keep their “competitive edge”, I struggle to see why you would choose to shirk a responsibility to share. I mean, are trusts really so afraid that – gasp! – other schools might also do a good job?!
Thankfully, Section 43 is a “qualified exemption”. This means that if the ‘public interest’ in favour of disclosure outweighs the commercial prejudice then the information should still be released. If a school has a ‘secret recipe’ then to me there is a clear benefit in sharing it with people running schools for the other 9.5million children. I’m currently awaiting an appeal. We’ll see how it goes.
Related Posts:
What e-coli can teach us about brand name academies
No Use Crying Over Spilt Dinner Ladies
 

Serious Questions about the new "HeadTeacher Boards"

Announcements are finally due to be made about the appointment of the new Regional Schools Commissioners.
For the uninitated, the Commissioners will work in geographically mad locations (see map) and will oversee all academies and free schools in that area. Essentially, they will act as devolved ‘Secretary of States’ in their region, but the four main functions the DfE say they will perform are:

  • Monitoring performance and prescribing intervention
  • Taking decisions about the creation of new schools (including free schools)
  • Ensuring enough high quality sponsors available to meet local need
  • Taking decisions on changes to open academies (e.g. should they be able to expand, change age range, etc).

Intriguingly, they will also be helped by a “HeadTeacher Board”. So far this has been a quieter part of the policy. However, I today discovered a letter from Frank Green, the National Schools Commissioner, which outlines how it will work. It says:
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So…. Some Serious Questions
1. A major concern here is the word “majority” elected. Why not “entirely elected”?
2. Why only headteachers in ‘outstanding’ schools eligible for being on the Board? Is this some kind of reward? Seems a bit unfair that you could be working to really improve a school and not be allowed to take part. Is the idea that if a school is already outstanding then it’s not a problem for  a Head to cut out one day a week?
3. How will we account for ‘ex-headteachers’? So…still unclear on this…if you were the Head of an outstanding academy, but now you’re at a not-outstanding academy are you still eligible to stand?
4. Can you vote if you are now the head of a Trust? Seems a bit dodgy that someone who is now Head of a Trust, and will be wanting a…let’s say…’preferable outlook’ towards their sponsor chain could potentially be involved in voting for people who will then advise on preferred sponsors. Or am I being cynical?
5. How long are the terms? And can a new Regional Commissioner boot the old ones out? Is it like the House of Lords where you can stay forever? Can a mean new Commissioner make people resign?
This is not to say that the HeadTeacher Boards (or HTBs as they will no doubt become) can’t or won’t work. But it’s important we think through these issues in advance. No one likes a fiasco, right?
Update! Everyone can vote in an area… Okay. Have amended blog to reflect this.
Related Posts:
Where Is The Desk Of The New Regional School Commissioners?

Clarifying IES Breckland and The Free School Monitoring Forms

I’ve contributed to some confusion today around IES Breckland’s pre-Ofsted monitoring visit. Completely my mistake and given that I’m always banging on about things being clear, I thought it best to sort it out.
Straightforward facts:
Feb 25th – I blog about free schools receiving DfE monitoring visits which result in being given reports that look exactly like Ofsted ones. This is after a Freedom of Information request for the visit documents where I am told I can only have a blank one. To release the secret ones would be too detrimental.
March 11th – IES Breckland Free School receives a lot of press due to a pending ‘inadequate’ Ofsted rating. Education Minister Matthew Hancock is interviewed on ITV and is asked why a report from the DfE in October describes the school as ‘excellent’. Hancock can’t answer but says that being transparent about free schools is “far better than not”, and intimates that the report has (or at least should be) published.
March 12th – I write a second freedom of information request for the documentsThis is where I screw up the first time. I suggest that there are concerns that the documentation of the October visit states the school is ‘outstanding’ not ‘excellent’. These, of course, are different terms – because one has an Ofsted meaning and the other doesn’t. I was involved conversations on Twitter raising this concern but am now wondering where the leap was made.
April 2nd – The DfE responds to my FOI request and says there was no visit in October, the school was never labelled as outstanding, and that they still won’t release the forms.
 
Still not releasing the ‘excellent’ vs. ‘outstanding’ issue, I screw up a second time when I tweet:

[tweet 451332526494453760 hide_thread=’true’]

[tweet 451336623083782144 hide_thread=’true’]

[tweet 451339874105577472 hide_thread=’true’]

 
Thankfully, Elodie Harper at ITV explains the background to the interview in full:

[tweet 451352124145016832 hide_thread=’true’]

[tweet 451352239735861248 hide_thread=’true’]

[tweet 451352413036085248 hide_thread=’true’]

[tweet 451352752179146753 hide_thread=’true’]

[tweet 451352745564729344 hide_thread=’true’]

[tweet 451353149337763840 hide_thread=’true’]

So IES Breckland was not suggested to be outstanding by the DfE nor ITV. But it seems to have been called ‘excellent’, And in December, not October, which seems even closer to the inspection date.

So….some questions remain:

  1. Was the school called excellent? I guess I’ve lost my chance on this one as the DfE are hardly going to respond to a follow-up (and don’t need to).
  2. Why did Matt Hancock not deny the ‘excellent’ label, or say that the report had shown many problems? Could it be that he actually didn’t really know anything about what the report said?
  3. Why did parents feel that the report suggested the school was ‘excellent’? How was that information passed to them?

As Elodie says, we can’t know for certain unless the reports are released by the DfE and I can’t see that happening any time soon.  One thing is for certain though, I’ll be listening out more carefully for the use of the word ‘excellent’ in the future.

The Apology That Really *WAS* A Press Release

Two weeks ago I blogged about Michael Gove claiming he had an apology “confirmed in writing” from Action Fraud. The apology stated that Action Fraud were at fault for the mislabelling of a phone call about school fraud as ‘information’ rather than a ‘crime’ report.
I asked via an FOI request to see the apology. The DfE sent back a press release. I emailed (and rang) to check if the press release was the actual confirmed apology as described by Gove. The DfE reply suggests that it was. This strikes me as odd, but I’m willing to believe this really is the information the DfE holds.
Unfortunately, this still doesn’t explain precisely how the information came to be mislabelled. TWICE. (The first time when the phone call went to Action Fraud, the second time when it was checked over by the National Intel Bureau). Nor how Action Fraud came to review the documentation after Newsnight. (Did someone watching at home on the Friday night suddenly realise that they’d made a mistake?) But those are not questions for the DfE to answer.
On the upside, the Home Office is also FOI-able….
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What do you notice about this Free School monitoring form?

The Department for Education has always said Free Schools were visited periodically after opening to ensure all was well. It was never clear who was making the visits, or what they involved, or what sort of feedback schools got – but we knew there were visits.
To find out more I put in a Freedom of Information request. I was particularly interested in the visits that happened prior to Free Schools receiving their first Ofsted inspection. This is because the Ofsted judgements of Free Schools have been touted by the Secretary of State as a demonstration of free schools’ excellence.
The DfE have said that they cannot release the forms (yawn – inevitable). However I also asked that if they were going to decline to release, they should nevertheless release a blank template. [It’s quite difficult to argue against that].
So here it is. Tell me, what do you notice?
Free School Monitring Template
Is it just me, or does this look like Free Schools are getting a report from the DfE that exactly mimics an Ofsted report in the time period before the school’s actual Ofsted inspection?
On the one hand I can see the argument is that schools needs support. But the point of being a “free” school is supposedly that they are free from the government…. So why are the DfE providing this help? Also, who pays for it? Can other schools ask for this kind of support from the DfE? Are ex-inspectors involved? Are current inspectors involved? All manner of tricky questions come to the fore.
I’m also intrigued by the confidentiality bulletin at the top. Subtext: NOT TO BE MENTIONED. AT ALL. EVER.
Sigh. I really hope we get to some transparency soon on these processes. It really would help.

Update: DfE start repopulating TBNP site

After my earlier blog post outlining the mysterious disappearance of the DfE’s Targeted Basic Need Programme website, two key things happened.
One – Adrian Short found a cached version of the original TBNP website 
https://twitter.com/adrianshort/status/428108259103232000
And here it is. See its many shiny links!:
TBNP old
Seeing the page again made me notice the datestamp. 12 December 2013. Remember that.
Then, a second thing happened:


Hurray! [Though I’m a bit perplexed about why anyone had ever thought there were changes to the programme itself?!]
The suggestion from within was that this was an “error” caused by the cleaning up of the website ready for the transition to the absolutely terrible GOV.UK website. This might well be true, but it’s hard to tell. Let’s just hope this all-too-convenient error doesn’t become a trend.
One thing did strike me as odd though. This is what the barren TBNP website looked like yesterday.
TBNPNote its date stamp. 26 July 2013.
If you were “clearing up” a website why would you choose to go back to a prior version (26 July) rather than just stick with the one you just had (12 December)? Beats me. Maybe this is the proof it really was a cock-up.
But, there’s one more thing…
Today’s site is better. There are now more links giving info about the process:
TBNP new
BUT – several documents still haven’t made it across. Particularly those related to the application process. (They are the PDF links you can see in the right hand bar of the first image above).
I assume these documents are still making their way across in this comedy of website errors. Let’s hope they make it safely and don’t get lost a second time.

Why did the DfE delete the Targeted Basic Need Programme website?

Given that the Department for Education have asked for a Tribunal to keep free school information a secret, you might think they are in the habit of hiding things. But I’m generally an optimistic soul, and I don’t think that. Not least because the majority of people I meet in edu-policy are thoughtful, and interesting, and trying to do the right thing.
But then stuff comes along that makes it hard to keep such optimism up. Take, for example, the DfE’s sudden deletion of all the pages on the Targeted Basic Need Programme (TBNP).
What is the TBNP?
david laws
 Last year David Laws announced £820m of funds for building new schools. Laws had to do this because the country has a lot of young people and not enough school spaces. The Free Schools policy, where any interested group can apply to open a school, has filled some places, but not many, because the areas where people tend to apply are not always the ones which have the most desperate shortages.
Back when the government were getting a kicking over the money spent on Free Schools, it intrigued me they didn’t defend themselves by talking more about the Targeted Basic Need Programme. After all, it was the policy to solve the places shortage. So I investigated.
What did the TBNP involve? And how is it different to people opening Free Schools?
Before 2010 local authorities were commonly involved in school openings. When the Coalition took over, they put Central Government in charge. Applicants now wanting to a school applied to the DfE, attended interview, and if successful were then granted funds for a school.
The TBNP Programme is different. Because certain places really needed new schools but weren’t getting free school applicants, a call was put out to local councils asking them to say how many school places they needed and bid for schools to fulfill the need. (Either an extension of an existing one, or a new school altogether). The government then examined the submissions and doled out IOUs to the deserving, “Here you go Thurrock, we grant you x million to open a school”. To get the money the local authority then ran a competition for a provider to open and run the school. The council could select from a list of approved academy groups, or they could get a new group approved. Once the local authority decided its preference for a provider it had to send those preferences to the DfE who would check them over, and either grant funds for the school (and the preferred provider) or say “Hmmmm…NO. We think you should have THIS provider instead”. How often this switch happened is one of the things I am most interested in finding out.
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Can an interested person read about the Local Authority competitions?
Well, they could – in the past. For example, Rotherham had their tender documents online in December. But they’ve now mysteriously disappeared.
Rotehrham
Luckily, I still have a copy .

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Does the DfE website inform people about the programme?
Again, it used to. The site was packed with helpful info. I know this because I wrote an email on the 8th January in which I linked to two pages of it (and referred to several others). One of the pages linked to a pdf manual of the process, the other linked to the forms councils completed:

targeted basic need email

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And the DfE have taken all this information down?

Seemingly so. When I went looking for information yesterday, this was all I could find:

TBNP

An  £820m policy. Two sentences.

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What about the “Connected to this” sidebar promising more info?

Yeah. It brings you back here.

TBNP

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What about the links from the email? To the pdf manual and the paperwork? Do those still work?

Hahaha. No.

TBNP

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So either I am missing something OR, in the past two weeks all the publicly accessible information about this policy has disappeared.

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Why does this matter?

For a few reasons. First, £820m quid is not a small amount of money. But if anyone in the public wants to read about the policy, or scrutinise the money’s use, or learn from the TBNP, they are now a bit screwed.

Two, I always worry when the processes for selecting companies to run schools are not transparent. The more the process is hidden away the more likely you are to get fraud, nepotism and dodgy backdoor dealings. That Parliament is later today debating a Free School fraud case where a Conservative Party Vice Chair was making money from the school’s existence should make us all the more anxious to get school procurement matters out into the open (and clear good names that may be unfairly unsullied).

Finally, the law is quite clear that citizens have the right to see government information unless there is good reason not. The law makes this assumption for the same reason we invigilate exam halls. If people know the gaze might fall on them they tend to behave.

I don’t care why this information has disappeared. I do want it to come back.  Ideally with full disclosure of the application process and the bids also (one can dream). Going down the FOI route again will be super-boring, but entirely doable. Let’s hope instead, with characteristic optimism restored, that we will all be spared such a palava.

Update: see what happened next! 

5 Lessons From Derby: The Significance of Al-Madinah Free School

Any government spokesperson who says the failures of Al-Madinah Free School do not tell you anything about the wider policy, is entirely wrong.  The gaping and problematic holes in the free schools policy have been apparent ever since Michael Gove pushed through the free school legislation in a 5-day procedure usually reserved for terrorist threats, and anyone pretending otherwise is being disingenuous.
The government chose to ignore these problems. And now Al-Madinah Free School has taught 400 children for over twelve months in an environment that Ofsted describes as ‘dysfunctional’ and inadequate in every category. The report notes how most of the primary teachers have never taught before and many staff are in roles for which they “do not have the qualifications or experience”.
Over half of the secondary pupils have unauthorized absences and the overall attendance rate is less than 90%. The school did not know how many children have SEN statements. Last year’s budget has not been reconciled. The school is unaware of whether it has a surplus or deficit. On their own, each of these things is exceptionally problematic. That they all co-exist, in one school, is extraordinary.
How did it get like this?
The government will no doubt trot out lines such as “we did everything we could”, “this is the price of innovation”, and “let’s not take away from the great work done by the other free schools”. But those are hollow and irrelevant platitudes. Even if 90% of Free Schools are brilliant, it is not okay to sacrifice 400 children in a process that was obviously foolish from the outset.
5 Lessons The Government Must Learn, & Quickly
1. The application process has always been questionable
The government kept the entire school application process secret. They would not reveal who applied, what the applicants wrote, the evidence they had of demand or staff competence, and the government won’t reveal the reasons why people did or did not get accepted. There is no evidence that decisions were made consistently or rigorously, and the one year battle I have had with the DfE to try and get this information shows a concerning reluctance to reveal this information (I am still awaiting an appeal decision) . But, why?  On the basis of Al-Madinah it appears that at least one problematic school has slipped through the net. Could there be more?
2. The decision to allow ‘anyone’ to teach in autonomous schools will backfire
The government announced during the Olympic Ceremony that academies and free schools could hire unqualified teachers and that those teachers would never need to get qualified. Because of this, Al-Madinah was able to to open a school consisting almost entirely of lay professionals who had no experience of lesson planning, assessment frameworks, or safeguarding. Pleas that the policy change delivered “flexibility” is not good enough. It was blatantly obvious some schools would take advantage and this is the first casualty.
3.  A “middle tier” is needed to support schools in trouble
Al-Madinah is now in trouble – and who is going to help? Free schools are only accountable to the Secretary of State, who relies on Ofsted to give the nod that says they can stay in business. But Ofsted can’t be everywhere. So when things go awry, the school will limp on until Ofsted arrives again (which could be a period of years). And then, once problems are revealed – what happens next?  The local authority has neither the power nor the capacity to help. So who will help the school improve? Or, if the decision is made that the school will close, who will see that it is wound down responsibly? Who will help the students get places in other schools? We know that the DfE is completing ‘monitoring’ visits in the first year of school operations, but we don’t know what the visits involve, what they find, or who is responsible for resourcing necessary improvements. Basically, if a school is struggling there is no clear plan for improving it.
4.  We need a process for closing  free schools
If the government is going to run with the line that “this is the inevitable consequence of innovation”, then it really ought to have a plan for that inevitability. Unlike in the US where most states now issues contracts with very clear quality measures, (so a school will knows the standards it is required to meet annually), the rules around what constitutes minimum required quality in England is fuzzy. There is confusion over funding agreements and Ofsted’s right to revoke a founder group’s ability to run a school. There is no clear line about the length of time a school has to get its quality sorted before takeover, or what processes it must go through. Al-Madinah have already openly questioned whether or not the government is entitled to try and close it on the basis of the current inspection. If these rules are not crystal clear (which I’m not convinced they are), any further action on Al-Madinah could become a lengthy tussle.
5.  Who will pay to close free schools?
Even if a free school closes willingly, there is still the problem of contracts. Property rent, computer equipment, cleaning companies. With no contract oversight (and in this case no reconciliation), who is responsible for buying out those contracts? What happens to buildings purchased? State education departments across the US have spent millions on legal bills trying to resolve issues of closure because they didn’t have clear rules decided in advance. I’d have sympathy for the government on this, if I hadn’t been telling them all along that this would happen.
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On its own Al-Madinah is a school that needs help to better provide for the children it serves. Really, I understand that. But I will not lay off using this example as a way of highlighting bigger issues. The government will want to paint this as an accident, or as an unexpected situation, maybe even a minor inevitability. But it’s not. The situation was absolutely predictable and absolutely stoppable. If not completely, at least in part. There was no need to allow schools to have almost entirely unqualified staff. There is no reason why Ofsted could not inspect sooner, and no sense in implementing this policy before a proper middle tier of scrutiny and support was created. That contracts of quality were never thoroughly outlined always seemed weird, but what I find unforgivable is the lack of a transparent opening and closure process.
Politicians cannot tell teachers and children there is no excuse for failure then pussyfoot around when it’s their mistake laid out on the table. This has been a cock-up and Gove, as the person who pushed this legislation through, needs to admit it. If he does, then perhaps we will finally see something done about it.
Related Posts:
Why did West London Free School change their vision?
Following up on Free Schools & Transparency