Government says data and rationale for schools reopening ‘not in the public interest’
Nine London councils have demanded the Education Secretary publishes the data behind decisions on how schools will open next month after his department again refused to tell them how or why it made the decision that primary schools in the boroughs should reopen in January.
The Department for Education refused a Freedom of Information request from the Mayor of Hackney, Philip Glanville, asking for “the methodology, data and evidence base” that it applied when it initially announced that schools in Hackney and nine other London boroughs would be forced to reopen for the spring term on 30 December, despite having much higher rates of coronavirus than elsewhere.
In its response, the department said that “public interest in non-disclosure outweighs the public interest in disclosure in this case”, and that “premature disclosure on this topic would be likely to disrupt the future working relationships, necessary consultation and flow of ministerial advice”. It has used the same explanation to refuse similar requests from other boroughs.
Just 48 hours after insisting that schools would be forced to reopen, the Government U-turned and said they would remain closed, after the headteachers, parents, MPs, council leaders, the Mayor of London and public health professionals all questioned the decision.
At the time of the decision, Hackney was under Tier 4 restrictions, with a case rate of 865.5 per 100,000 – in the top 10 in London and 30th in the country. Many of the other nine boroughs – Camden, Greenwich, Haringey, Harrow, Islington, Kingston, Lambeth and Lewisham – also had far higher infection rates than areas that were told schools should remain shut, such as Westminster.
It’s frankly astonishing that anyone could claim that how ministers are making decisions that affect the health and lives of thousands of children, parents and teachers are not in the public interest.
I immediately asked the minister to publish the data behind his decision last month, and weeks later families across Hackney are none the wiser about the shambolic and stressful 48 hours they were subjected to by this Government.
That is not good enough for parents and teachers in Hackney. After not getting replies to our letters, asking questions in meetings and officers seeking answers from the Department for Education, this FOI was a last resort.
As the Prime Minister says schools may reopen in March, and we can’t see a repeat of this failure in the coming weeks. Gavin Williamson must commit now to being open and transparent about how he will decide which schools will reopen when.
Mayor Glanville and Deputy Mayor Cllr Anntoinette Bramble have written to the Department for Education to request an internal review of the decision to reject the Freedom of Information request.
The Prime Minister announced last week that the earliest that schools could reopen is 8 March, but the Government is yet to publish any plan or strategy for how this decision will be taken, which schools could open first, or if some areas or year groups will be prioritised.