Freedom of Information victory lifts veil of academy secrecy
- Credit: Copyright: Archant 2016
The Department for Education has released official documents that form the basis of key decisions about schools across our region, following pressure from the EDP.
The papers, marked 'official - sensitive', are used by the East of England and North-East London Headteacher Board (HTB) to advise regional schools commissioner Tim Coulson on which schools should be academies, who should run them, and which are under-performing.
Its most controversial decisions include turning the Hewett School in Norwich into an academy, sponsored by the Inspiration Trust, last year.
The papers, from meetings in autumn 2015, were finally released, in a heavily redacted form, following a 17-month Freedom of Information battle with the EDP, which has now appealed for more information to be disclosed.
Here are five things we have learned from the documents.
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The most notable thing about the 416 pages of documents are the huge blocks of grey used to censor them. The following are just a few of the pieces of information the government has kept hidden:
• A number of issues that arose from a review of the accounts of the Elliot Foundation, whose 22 academies include four in north-east Cambridgeshire
• The entire rationale for the College of West Anglia Academy Trust sponsoring Sothery Primary, and all the risks and issues associated with the proposal
• All information about the future plans of the Wensum Trust at the time it was bidding to sponsor Acle Academy
• Dr Coulson's views on the suitability of the Diocese of Norwich Education and Academies Trust (DNEAT) to sponsor St Andrew's Primary
• Five pages of information Howard Junior School, in King's Lynn, submitted as part of its successful application to set up the Apollo Trust
• Seven of the eight reasons listed for Walpole Cross Keys Primary becoming an academy
• Any details of the experience or background of the members and trustees of Evolution Academy Trust in Costessey
The missing minutes
The documents reveal the existence of a previously unknown meeting of the headteacher board on September 24, 2015, whose minutes have not been published.
According to the papers, it discussed a fast track application for the Trinity Federation of schools - Great Witchingham, Hockering and St Peter's primaries - to join DNEAT.
The report recommended their applications be approved, and the three schools are now all members of the trust.
One of the reasons given was the schools, which all had 'good' or 'outstanding' Ofsted ratings, would 'add to the capacity of the trust, with the headteacher and governing body supporting other small schools to form clusters and thereby improve the longer term viability, and demonstrate the benefits of working in partnership'.
What information is the board given?
The Department for Education publishes brief minutes of HTB meetings, which record decisions made, but offer little more than a dozen words summarising 'key discussion points'.
Today's documents give us an indication of the information the board is given before it makes its recommendations.
When considering whether an individual school should become an academy, it is told about exam results over recent years, any private finance initiative (PFI) deals - which could saddle the sponsor with huge costs, the name and party of the local MP, and its distance from the proposed sponsor's headquarters or lead school.
It also outlines the rationales for the school to become an academy, and to have a particular sponsor, and any risks and issues - such as ongoing building works or other organisations that share its premises.
The board is also given information about the proposed sponsor, including whether results are up or down at its other schools, its capacity to take on more schools, its future plans, and a risk analysis - including issues raised from a review of their accounts.
Board approves most recommendations
The headteacher board seems to almost always agree with the advice civil servants put to it.
In the 15 cases in the EDP circulation area that the documents allow us to check, the board went along with 13 recommendations made in the report.
In two cases - Cawston Primary, and Roudham and Weasenham primaries - officials recommended that the academy conversions be given conditional approval, but the board decided to defer a decision until DNEAT has appointed its new regional principals.
The board approved the applications two months later.
In the documents released, the Department for Education has redacted the name of each report's author, and the person who cleared it, so it is not possible to know who made these recommendations, or to assess their experience or suitability.
Small schools are a worry
The sustainability of small schools has been a perennial issue for Norfolk County Council. The documents show it is a concern of the headteacher board, too.
Nine Norfolk primary schools considered by the board were listed as having a 'viability issue' - and all but one have joined the Diocese of Norwich Education and Academies Trust.
The schools were Castle Acre Primary, Narborough Primary, Sporle Primary, St Andrew's Primary in North Pickenham, Great Witchingham Primary, Hockering Primary, Rudham Primary, Weasenham Primary, and Walpole Cross Keys Primary.
A report from December 17 considering the future of Rudham and Weasenham schools said: 'In pure numbers terms the longer term viability of these two schools is questionable, however the general reluctance to close small schools means that the solution must rest with grouping schools.'
The story behind the story
It started in April 2015 with a simple Freedom of Information (FoI) request: 'Please could you send me all the documents considered by the Headteacher Board for East of England and North-East London for its meetings since it was first formed'.
What followed was a 17-month period where the Department for Education (DfE) three times refused to release the information, the EDP twice asked for internal reviews, and formally appealed to the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO).
After many delays, the DfE finally released documents, in a heavily censored form, in September 2016.
Throughout the process, the DfE kept adding additional reasons for not releasing the information, initially arguing it would make it harder for the board to work effectively, then adding that the request was 'vexatious' because it would take so long to remove exempt information, and finally adding that the documents were 'considered to be commercially sensitive information'.
At one point, following discussions between the DfE and ICO, the EDP agreed to limit the scope of its request, only for the DfE to once again turn it down.
After the EDP argued in May 2016 that releasing the documents was in the public interest, and pointed out that academies are not commercial organisations, but charities that cannot make a profit, the DfE finally started releasing the documents in September.
Now, the EDP has appealed to the ICO for a second time, arguing the documents were too heavily censored.
What is the Headteacher Board - and why does it matter?
In 2014, the government introduced a new system to monitor and make decision about academies - publicly-funded schools that broke away from the local council, and were now responsible directly to the Department for Education.
Eight regional schools commissioners - including Tim Coulson, in our area - decide which schools become academies, who runs them, which should close, and which new schools should open. They are advised by the Headteachers Board, mainly drawn from headteachers of high-performing local academies.
In our region, board members include Dame Rachel de Souza, chief executive of the Inspiration Trust, and Sir Steve Lancashire, chief exec of the Reach2 academy trust.
Up to now, it has been a largely secretive body, giving no indication, apart from skeletal minutes, of the reasons for sometimes controversial decisions that affect thousands of children, and involve millions of pounds of taxpayers' money.
Now, the EDP has forced the government to release, for the first time, some of the documents the board uses, throwing some light on one of least transparent areas of public policy.
'I think we will see greater transparency'
Sir Steve Lancashire, chief executive of the Reach2 group of primary academies, sits on the headteacher board.
He said: 'One of the things I have been reassured by is just how robust and rigorous the boards are. When I joined it, what I did not want to do was go on a board that just rubber stamped decisions that had already been taken.
'About every single project there's a robust discussion and I think Tim Coulson as the regional schools commissioner really listens to that and takes on our challenge and advice.'
When asked if he thinks the board is transparent enough, he said: 'I don't think there's anything we discuss that could not be seen or heard or listened to by someone else. Obviously there's sometimes sensitive information, but as much transparency around decisions as possible is always a good thing for me, and I think we will see in the coming year greater transparency.'
Does the fact the board approves so many recommendations made by civil servants show it is not scrutinising the issues deeply enough?
Sir Steve said: 'I think it's a sign the schools commissioner's office is doing its job well. That matching of where's the best home for this school - by the time it gets to the board a lot of work has been done, and some of the decisions around that have been spot on.'
He said when the board challenges recommendations, the officials go away and 'answer the questions we have raised'.