Is it in the public interest for us to know what other schools in Kent and its neighbouring areas think about the county council's proposals for a 'new' grammar school in west Kent?
There has, and remains, considerable interest in the scheme ever since Kent County Council confirmed in May its plan to open a new four-form entry satellite school in Sevenoaks to address the problem of a shortage of selective places in the town and the well-documented problems of children travelling long distances to get to a grammar school.
KCC to build new grammar annexe>>>
It is known that the logistics of the plan are proving complex, not least because of the problems of funding and identifyng a possible site. It is also known that surrounding schools have views about the scheme and not all of them believe it is the best way forward. This includes not just schools in Sevenoaks but the surrounding area.
So, what do they think and what representations has Kent County Council received from them? That was the subject of a Freedom of Information request I lodged with KCC in August. A fortnight ago, way outside the statutory deadline for complying with FOI requests, the county council finally provided a response.
It declared that the the authority had deemed the information exempt and would be withheld because to do so would be "prejudicial to the effective conduct of public affairs" - using Section 36 of the Act which permits it to do so.
According to KCC, releasing the information "before the discussions about this on-going issue have been concluded would inhibit the free and frank exchange of views...necessary for options to be considered."
Not only that but "disclosure at this stage...would lead to a high risk of project failure" and "would hinder the ability for all parties to complete the process and deliver an effective public service."
The council's lengthy and careful discussions around "an emotive subject of high political and public interest" were incomplete and disclosure would inhibit "the free and frank exchange of views between the key players...necessary for a solution to drafted."
For good measure, the authority reinforces its case by suggesting that disclosure would inhibit the exploration of "extreme options" in the process of deliberation.
It is rather perverse to advance an argument against disclosure on the grounds that the subject is an emotive one of high political and public interest: part of the argument for knowing what others think about the project is precisely because it is an"emotive subject of high political and public interest".
While it may - just - be legitimate for KCC to withold details of discussions with potential partners who may act as sponsors of the new grammar, it is hard to see what grounds there are for not being allowed to know what other schools think about the decision to move ahead with drawing up a scheme.
Enough is known for other schools to be able to make a judgement about how it may impact on them in terms of pupil numbers: surely it is in the public interest to know whether schools have concerns about any potentially adverse impact and equally, whether schools support the idea?
There is sometimes a sense that County Hall's Conservative administration would prefer to shut down any debate about its plans for fear of political embarrassment.
This particular FOI response rather reinforces that suspicion.
READ KCC'S FOI REPLY ON GRAMMAR SCHOOL PLAN:
GRAMMARFOI.pdf (143.31 kb)