The hair stylist inquired about my reason for the appointment and I mentioned that the government was taking me to court the following day regarding my legal battle for the release of classified documents on free schools. My goal was to scrutinize successful applicants and their reasons for becoming successful, while also tracking whether these schools were truly effective. The hair stylist took a moment to process my situation and responded, “Well, I’ll make sure you look great!” Sadly, good hair would be all I had as I lost the case.
So, what were these top-secret documents, you might ask? In September 2012, as part of my PhD studies, I simply requested the Department for Education to release application forms and decision letters sent to groups who had submitted requests to create free schools. Before 2010, these kinds of documents were available to the public. In America, all 43 states that have charter schools require similar documents to be public. It helps make the policy transparent and successful.
The DfE, however, did not agree with me. They argued that releasing the documents would lead to ridicule, copies, and information overload. Thankfully, the ICO ruled in my favour, stating a need for transparency and public interest and gave the DfE 35 days to comply. The DfE appealed the decision, submitting new arguments regarding cost, commercial confidentiality, and even deemed my request as “vexatious.” Ultimately, I found myself in court facing a judge, backed up by the DfE’s army of officials, while I relied on my family and good hair.
The DfE argued that it would cost £171,875 and take three months to redact all personal information in the documents before release. They also presented that if I had reduced the amount of documents, the outcome might have been different. However, this suggestion was not mentioned until the hearing. The cost of my request amounted to 0.015% of the £1.1bn budget for free schools. Additionally, cross-examination of a DfE witness revealed that the annual administrative budget for the free school department is £8m, making my request a mere 0.7% of this cost. These numbers beg the question of how justifiable it is to spend less than a penny on transparency.
Receiving negative news just before embarking on an 11-hour flight is not a pleasant experience. However, as I occupied my thoughts with the matter at hand, I came to a realization. The judge in charge of the case shared a crucial perspective; it was in the interest of the public to have the information released. My request to access the documents was only declined due to the DfE’s inability to redact multiple documents simultaneously, which they admitted was beyond their scope. Nonetheless, I positively deduced that if someone sought only a single free school application form, it ought to be granted. This verdict felt somewhat like a triumph, and it led me to believe that any individual interested in reviewing information about their school should be able to easily access it.
What was even more inspiring to me was the fact that the judge, having disregarded the assertion that divulging bids would discourage potential candidates, upheld the public’s interest. This victory poses a question; if the government openly acknowledges the public’s interest and claim, then how can it continue to justify keeping pertinent information confidential? In all honesty, a responsible government would ensure that application forms for opening free schools do not have applicants’ personal data strewn throughout, and they would quickly and affordably release redacted materials. I believe that this transparency should be an annual practice to prevent a backlog and any burden to the public.
It is a beautiful idea to have a government that embraces transparency and accountability, but I cannot help but remember my previous experience with the DfE. Their inclination to exploit any loophole in the system could overshadow the public’s interest in such matters. It is unfortunate, but they would delay until they find a way to keep such information classified.