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Council school guide reveals how not to answer difficult Trojan Horse questions

Council school guide reveals how not to answer difficult Trojan Horse questions

🕔04.Aug 2014

Birmingham schools have been provided with an official guide setting out ways in which they may be able to avoid answering Freedom of Information Act questions about Trojan Horse.

City council Information Governance Manager Steve Cullen has written to the schools detailing a range of clauses in the Act that can be used to prevent public bodies from disclosing information.

Mr Cullen discusses some of the requests that have been submitted under the FOI legislation including questions asking whether teachers and governors have received training under the Government’s anti-terror Prevent strategy and whether the school has a policy on tackling radicalisation and extremism.

The nub of Mr Cullen’s advice is that schools only need to be concerned about what they have written down on paper or in emails, and even then there are various exemptions under the Act that may allow information to be withheld.

He stresses that the FOI only covers information that is written down and recorded.

Mr Cullen says: “The Act does not cover information that is in someone’s head. If a member of the public asks for information, you only have to provide information you already have in recorded form.

“You do not have to create new information or find the answer to a question from staff who may happen to know it.”

He sets out a number of exemptions under the Act that are routinely used by public authorities to block the release of information. These include imposing a hefty fee if the time taken to locate and review the information requested exceeds 18 hours, and an exemption covering information that involves disclosing personal data.

Schools are invited to consider the Public Interest Test which allows public bodies to refuse to disclose information on the grounds that to do so would not be in the public interest.

The guide states: “There are a number of exemptions under the FOIA which may allow you to withhold some information. Exemptions can be absolute or qualified. Qualified exemptions require that you consider the public interest factors both for and against disclosure. If the public interest favours disclosure, then you ought to disclose the information.”

The schools are told they may be able to withhold under the personal data exemption written policies on tackling extremism if members of staff are named in the document.

The guide considers the best response to a question asking whether a school has a policy on tackling radicalisation and extremism in place. “Strictly speaking, this is a request for a specific policy on radicalisation and extremism. If you do not have a separate policy then your response can confirm that you do not have such a policy. However, where these issues are addressed in other policies such as safeguarding, you may wish to explain this in your response.”

Questions asking whether boys and girls are separated in class – one of the main critical findings of the Trojan Horse inquiries – can easily be avoided if nothing has been written down.

Mr Cullen says: “Consider whether you record any information relating to this request. If you do not record in written format whether or not some classes are taught separately, or the reasons for that, then you can confirm that you do not hold any information in relation to this request.”

He adds that FOI requests for the release of emails can be refused under the public interest test on the grounds of “legal professional privilege” if the emails contain legal advice that must remain confidential.

Emails can also be withheld if they contain confidential information the disclosure of which would amount to an actionable breach of confidence.

Mr Cullen’s guide states: “If your school holds a huge number of emails to and from Ofsted, the city council or the Department for Education and you need to go through each email individually to determine whether it falls within the scope of the request, then you may be able to rely on the cost of compliance as a reason for refusing the request.”

However, the guide also points out that difficulties can be easily overcome by using a search engine to locate emails containing the words ‘Trojan Horse’.

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