The price is right. Or is it?

I’m not a fan of free schools. They are divisive. Their existence makes it hard for local authorities to plan school admissions.  Given recent stories (which anyway just add to a body of evidence about their predecessor schools in Sweden and USA) they don’t appear likely to raise attainment. And they cost more than existing state schools do.

The Seckford Foundation Free Schools Trust, which opened two 11-16 free schools in Suffolk last year and are in consultation to open a third, in Ixworth,  have always appeared keen to put these claims to the test.  Despite widespread opposition (see James Hargrave’s blog for details) the Seckford Foundation have enthusiastically ploughed the DfE’s furrow, leading the way locally for an expansion of choice and independent sector engagement in state education.  However, they have been surprisingly coy about the costs associated with their new schools.

The government is rightly keen that we should all care about public expenditure, and as you might expect, state schools are required to publish financial information for public scrutiny.  Strangely, free schools do not seem obliged to follow the same rules.   Seckford were in the news last year for opening new schools with so few pupils that it was very hard to understand how they could be solvent any time soon if funded by the usual per-pupil mechanism.   Any other state school faced with the same financial pressures, under the usual rules, would surely be struggling to survive.  (And given the surplus of school places in the area, it’s hard to see that financial pressures won’t result on at least the existing schools, if not the new ones.)

So, in the interests of transparency, I sent Seckford a Freedom of Information (FoI) request in July 2012 to find out about the financing of these new schools in Beccles and Saxmundham. I wanted to know the numbers registered, the numbers for which they were funded, the operating budgets for their first year (2012-13) and the costs of building works associated with turning their premises (former middle schools) into high schools.

In October 2012 they sent me a very scant reply in which they refused to provide all the information except the school numbers.  So, following FoI procedure, I asked them to review their response. In November of that year they sent me a more detailed response, again outlining why they would not provide operating budgets or building costs but pointing out that their funding agreement had now been published.  Again in accordance with FoI procedure, I reported them to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO).  They then refused to provide the Information Commissioner with the information either, continuing to assert that commercial interests and intent to publish some of these figures (the building costs) in future meant that they were exempt from making the required information public.

By this time 8 months had elapsed since first submitting the FoI request.  I then appealed to the ICO, which investigated my complaint. In September, the ICO published their decision, and gave their reasons, describing whether the exemptions employed by the Seckford Foundation were valid and if so, whether wholly or in part. Their conclusion was that Seckford should disclose information regarding operating costs within the next 35 days.

In other words, Seckford could continue to withhold information on the building costs as they intend to publish these in due course, but they were required to make public the operating costs of the school as the ICO had judged the release of this information to be in the public’s interest.

Somewhat predictably, the Seckford Foundation haven’t disclosed the information within the required timeframe. Instead, they have appealed to the Information Commissioner’s Solicitors, and we won’t know the outcome of that for a while as at the very least it has to be considered by a tribunal ‘on paper’.  It takes expertise to deal with these things. Expertise the taxpayer is funding even though state schools wouldn’t usually be hiding behind such systems in the first place.

So in summary, the Seckford  Foundation Free Schools Trust is using public funding to provide  state schools for pupils for whom as it happens there are already plenty of school places available. But Seckford doesn’t want to disclose how much it is being paid to provide these schools, and is going to great lengths – at taxpayers expense – to stop this information from being made public.  We know that the Seckford Foundation charges day pupils between £13,470 and £14,400 per year  at Woodbridge School,  their pre-existing  independent school, which is more than twice what high schools in Suffolk receive per pupil.  But they don’t want to tell us what they get for their state school pupils. Whatever can they – or the DfE which is accountable for handing over the funding – have to hide?

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