Private schools ‘should be covered by FOI laws’

SCOTLAND’S information commissioner has said there is a case for extending disclosure laws to cover private schools.

Picture: Ian Rutherford

Rosemary Agnew told The Scotsman that parts of the private schools sector should be considered as part of a government plan to extend freedom of information (FoI) legislation to other bodies delivering public services. However, the proposal was attacked by critics as “intrusive” and they warned the Scottish Government against adopting legislation that could “persecute” private schools.

The body representing Scotland’s private schools sector also said there was “no need” to force fee-paying institutions to comply with FoI requests.

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Ms Agnew said there was a case for making Scotland’s entire private schools sector subject to the legislation because of their involvement in delivering public services. She said there was unlikely to be a strong enough public interest case to make private schools, which are funded by parental fees, publicly account for their finances.

However, she suggested areas such as curriculum, subjects taught in classes, child welfare and parts of school governance should be considered for FoI.

The move would allow members of the public to make FoI requests to the schools to release information within a period of 20 working days unless the data is exempt under the law.

Ms Agnew said where something was in the “interests” of children and it was linked to the delivery of public services, there may be a case for public disclosure. She said: “What should be a public matter is an important question and is about more than just money and anything that receives public funding.

“There’s a question of how wide it (FoI) should go.

“One thing that drives it is to what extent it (a school) delivers something that the law says it should do in a particular way.”

Scottish ministers have extended FoI to include bodies such as sport and leisure trusts that spend public funds, along with health boards, police authorities and councils.

But the legislation could now be extended to cover firms operating private prisons and independent special schools that cater for pupils with disabilities and special needs after a Scottish Government consultation.

Ms Agnew called on public bodies to “respond properly to requests” for environmental information about practices such as fracking and the creation of wind farms, “amid concern about apparently low levels of awareness of environmental information law”.

The commissioner has previously suggested that FoI should be extended to cover registered social housing landlords and private prisons as part of the government’s plans, on which ministers held a public consultation. Ms Agnew said the case for extending FoI legislation to private schools partly rested on the fact that there was a public interest in the delivery of education.

She added: “When we get down to detail if a school is wholly funded by parents that’s one thing, but there is still a requirement to comply with laws relating to children.

“The starting point is to look at what they do that is covered by statutory duties. It may well be that certain duties could be discussed for this. That should all be part of the debate.”

a spokesman from the Scottish Council of Independent Schools (SCIS), said that private schools already make public disclosures about their spending and governance due to the charitable status most of them hold.

The SCIS spokesman said: “There would certainly be no justification for an extension of FoI to the mainstream fee-paying sector and, more importantly, no need. Any communication with government, inspectorates, regulators and the like is already subject to the FoI provisions of those bodies, subject to the usual conditions of child protection and commercial confidentiality.

“For the rest, independent schools are - as the name suggests - autonomous from the state’s provision of education. Independent schools are established as free-standing and autonomous. Most are registered charities and their accounts are available.”

Conservative MSP Alex Johnstone said: “I’d be very concerned that something like this could be used to persecute private schools.”