The Open University? Application of FOIA to University Course Materials

December 11th, 2009 by Anya Proops QC

The question of whether and to what extent FOIA can be used as a device to open up public access to educational resources is obviously an important one for our society. It is a question which was very recently considered in the case of University of Lancashire v IC (EA/2009/0034). In that case, the Tribunal was called upon to decide whether a university (UCLAN) had acted unlawfully in refusing a request made under FOIA for disclosure of course materials relating to a BSc degree course in homeopathy. The request had been refused initially on the basis that disclosure of the course materials would damage UCLAN’s commercial interests (application of s. 43 FOIA). Subsequently, when the matter came before the Commissioner, UCLAN also argued that it was entitled to refuse disclosure because of the risks disclosure would pose to the effective conduct of its affairs (application of s. 36 FOIA). The Commissioner held that UCLAN had erred in refusing to disclose the course materials, save that he accepted that certain elements of the course materials, and particularly empirical case studies, could be withheld under s. 41 FOIA (the confidential information exemption). UCLAN appealed the Commissioner’s decision to the Tribunal.

The Tribunal dismissed UCLAN’s appeal. In summary, it held that:

·       with respect to the application of s. 43 FOIA (the commercial interests exemption):

o      despite being a charitable institution, UCLAN did have ‘commercial interests’ and those commercial interests were engaged in respect of teaching materials produced for its degree courses (§31);

o      however, it could not be said that, at the time of the request (July 2006), there was any real and significant risk that disclosure of the homeopathy course materials would prejudice UCLAN’s commercial interestsand accordingly s. 43 was not engaged (§§32-39);

o      in any event, had s. 43 been engaged, the public interest balance under s. 2 FOIA would have weighed firmly in favour of disclosure (§§40-50).

·       with respect to the application of s. 36 FOIA (the public affairs exemption), the exemption was not engaged because the opinion of the qualified person relied on for the purposes of this section was neither reasonable in substance nor reasonably arrived at (§§52-62).

The following aspects of the Tribunal’s decision are particularly worthy of note:

·       in line with the earlier Student Loans case, the Tribunal took a broad approach to the concept of ‘commercial interests’ for the purposes of s. 43. It readily accepted that universities could have commercial interests in the courses which they ran;

·       UCLAN argued before the tribunal that the course materials were exempt from disclosure not least having regard to the facts that: (a) they contained a significant amount of third party copyrighted information and (b) disclosure of that copyrighted information under FOIA would disincline third parties from contributing to course materials in the future. The tribunal rejected these arguments. It did so on the basis that: (1) disclosure of information under FOIA would not in any way have diluted any copyright enjoyed by the third parties and (2) there was in any event no sufficient evidence before the tribunal to substantiate UCLAN’s case that disclosure of the copyrighted material would have had an alienating effect on third party contributors.

·        the Tribunal highlighted the degree of rigour which must be applied when the relevant qualified person is seeking to formulate an opinion which engages s. 36. It also highlighted that the public authority must itself provide evidence that the person who reached the relevant opinion was a ‘qualified person’ for the purposes of s. 36 (§53);

·       on the question of the public interest test, the Tribunal found that there were strong public interests in disclosure. Those interests included both: (1) a general public interest in members of the public being able to test the educational value of publicly funded degree courses and (2) a specific public interest in accessing information relating to a homeopathy degree course which was by its very nature inherently controversial.

The parties were represented by 11KBW’s Tim Pitt-Payne (counsel for UCLAN) and Anya Proops (counsel for the Commissioner).

 

This I can do at home

November 23rd, 2009 by Timothy Pitt-Payne QC

The last Queen’s speech before the election includes another proposal for databases about children; this time, in relation to children who are being home educated.

The background is that in January 2009 the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) commissioned Graham Badman to carry out a review of the current system for supporting and monitoring home education. The report (available here) was published in June 2009. Its first recommendation was that the DCSF should establish a national registration scheme, locally administered, for all children of statutory school age who are, or become, home educated.

On 11th June the Government launched a consultation about registration and monitoring proposals for home education. Unfortunately I cannot link to the consultation document itself, as it is currently unavailable on the DCSF website. The key proposals in the consultation document were these.

2.1 Register of home educated children
The review recommends that DCSF establishes a national registration scheme, locally administered, for all children of statutory school age who are, or become, electively home educated. The scheme described in the review is one where education and safeguarding issues are both considered as part of the registration process, with an initial statement of educational intent forming the basis for subsequent educational monitoring arrangements. The review response acknowledges that ultimately the scheme would need to be underpinned by guidance and training for local authority staff in order to work effectively. We accept that it will take time to put the full scheme in place particularly where more work is needed to provide more comprehensive guidance on the practical interpretation of ‘efficient’ and ‘suitable’.
2.2 Registration would be granted automatically unless there were safeguarding concerns (see next section): if at any time a LA became dissatisfied with the quality of home education provided to a child, it would – as now – serve a school attendance order.
2.3 We propose to legislate now for registration and monitoring arrangements that will focus on safeguarding but should also improve the quality of education. They will have the following features:
• Every home educated child of compulsory school age must be registered with the local authority in which the child is resident;
• Regulations will specify the information that parents must provide which is likely to be child’s name, date of birth, address, the same information for adults with parental responsibility; a statement of approach to education, and the location where education is conducted if not the home;
• Scope to extend the scheme to 18 in future;
• Regulations will specify how registration should take place;
• Any changes to registration details should be notified immediately;
• Registration must be renewed annually;
• It will be a criminal offence to fail to register or to provide inadequate or false information;
• Pupils should stay on the school roll for 20 days after a notification to home educate;
• The school must provide the local authority with a record of achievement to date and predicted future attainment;
• DCSF will take powers to issue statutory guidance relating to registration and monitoring.
2.4 Safeguarding
The review recommends that local authorities should have a discretion to refuse registration where there are safeguarding concerns. In addition, if safeguarding concerns are identified after home education has begun, the LA would have powers to revoke registration. Each case would need to be considered on its merits, balancing the rights of parents to home educate, and the rights of children to receive a suitable education in a safe environment.
2.5 Monitoring arrangements
Local authorities tell us that they need greater powers to ensure that home educated children are safe, well, and receiving a suitable education. The current arrangements allow parents to submit evidence that a ‘suitable education’ is being provided, which could be mainly written evidence. Local authorities have no powers to interview home educated children to establish that sample material provided is representative of their work, nor to establish that they are safe and well.
2.6 We believe that local authorities should interview children within 4 weeks of home education starting, after 6 months has elapsed, and thereafter at least annually to assess the quality of education provided and ensure that children are safe and well. The local authority should visit the premises where education is conducted, and question the child about the education provided, although at least 2 weeks notice should be given before the visit is conducted. The local authority should have the right to carry out the interview without a parent being present, if this is judged appropriate, or alternatively if the child is vulnerable or has particular communication needs, in the company of a trusted person who is not the home educator or parent/carer.

The consultation closed on 19th October, and as yet there has been no Government response to it.  The Queen’s Speech  nevertheless includes a proposal for a Children, Schools and Families Bill, one element of which is to be a new home educators’ registration system. For the full text of the proposed Bill, see here.  The provisions about home education are in Schedule 1 to the Bill, and consist of proposed amendments to the Education Act 1996.   New section 19A(1) of the 1996 Act will require each local authority to maintain a register of home-educated children. Regulations will make provision for how parents can apply to have their children included in the register. The local authority must refuse registration if they consider that it would be harmful to child’s welfare for the child to become, or remain, a home-educated child. It seems that if registration is refused, and the child is not sent to school, then the likely consequence will be a school attendance order: see the proposed amendments to section 437 of the 1996 Act. Under new section 19H of the 1996 Act, regulations can be made requiring other local authorities, and schools, to share information with a local authority for the purposes of that authority’s home education functions.

 

There are four points to make about this. One is that the proposed registers are, in substance, a mechanism for parents to seek advance permission from their local authority before home schooling their children. Failure to register will not in itself be a criminal offence, but may lead to a school attendance order; and failure to comply with that order may be a criminal offence. Secondly, exactly what information is to be included in each register is unclear, and will be set out in regulations; but it may well be that the registers will include information about each child’s prospective home education, as well as basic personal details such as name and address. Thirdly, it is unclear as yet who will have access to these registers, and for what purpose.  And fourthly, there are to be specific information-sharing provisions in connection with home education.