The Department for Education (DfE) is appealing against a ruling of the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) that the DfE was wrong to refuse a Freedom of Information (FOI) request about Steiner schools. The FOI request was submitted by the British Humanist Association (BHA) and asked for a copy of the investigation carried out in 2010 by the DfE’s Free Schools team into whether or not Steiner schools should receive state funding. The BHA, which has been pursuing the document for the past year and a half, is intervening in the case, and is simultaneously announcing that it has reason to believe that the document recommended they should not receive funding.
The BHA has numerous concerns about the state funding of Steiner schools, which, in a briefing also being published today, it is setting out in a detailed manner for the first time. These concerns range from the general quality of education provided, to the large amounts of pseudoscience on the curriculum (including scepticism of evolution and vaccinations and support for homeopathy); from homeopathy being given to pupils by the schools’ ‘anthroposophical doctors’, to at least one of the schools opting out of providing vaccinations (the BHA is not aware of any other state schools doing either of these things). Additionally, the first two Steiner schools to open did so despite overwhelming local opposition, but this opposition was ignored.
As a result of these concerns and the alleged content of the relevant document, in May 2012 the BHA made a freedom of information request to the DfE asking for a copy of it. This was rejected on the grounds that it relates to the formulation and development of government policy, and the public interest lies against disclosure. The BHA challenged this decision to the ICO, who on 9 December last year decided that the DfE was wrong on the balance of public interest, and ordered that the document be released.
However, on 21 January the DfE decided to appeal this decision to the Information Tribunal, triggering a legal case with the Information Commissioner – now also arguing that the information is exempt as to release it would damage Steiner schools’ commercial interests. The BHA has been added to the case as second respondent. The case is reminiscent of the BHA’s victory a year ago at the Information Tribunal, where the DfE was forced to disclose the names and religions of all Free School applicants (something it had previously only done for those that were successful); and another ongoing case where educator Laura McInerney is fighting for copies of all Free School applications and decision letters. The ICO decision in Laura’s case relied upon the Tribunal ruling in the BHA’s previous case.
BHA Faith Schools Campaigner Richy Thompson commented, ‘We have long been concerned about the lack of transparency and democratic deficit involved in the Free Schools approval process. These concerns are at their most acute when it comes to the state funding of Steiner schools, which appears to be happening in spite of widespread concern and opposition. The first Steiner Free School was opposed by most of the local population, the council, neighbouring schools and the NHS Trust, but was opened anyway.
‘We are also concerned to learn from the Government that if a Free School proposes to give pupils homeopathy, or opt out of providing vaccinations, then these are not considered reasons for flat out rejection of that proposal. They should be – these ideas are as pseudoscientific as creationism, and more directly harmful. As a result, we will be fighting to find out why these schools have been approval.’
For further comment or information contact Richy Thompson, Education Campaigns Officer, at firstname.lastname@example.org or on 020 7324 3072.
Currently there are three state funded Steiner schools, with a fourth on the way. The first, Steiner Academy Hereford, is a sponsored Academy which opened in 2008. The second, Steiner Academy Frome, is the first Steiner Free School and opened in 2012. Steiner Academy Exeter opened in 2013, with Steiner Academy Bristol due to open in 2014. Six more groups are applying to open Steiner Free Schools from 2015.
Read the BHA’s detailed briefing on Steiner schools: https://humanists.uk/wp-content/uploads/BHA-BRIEFING-concerns-about-the-state-funding-of-Steiner-schools.pdf
Read the ICO’s decision: https://humanists.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013-12-09-ICO-decision-notice-on-Maharishi-and-Steiner-schools.pdf
Read the BHA’s previous comment on the state funding of Steiner schools: https://humanists.uk/2012/09/14/news-1115/
And on Steiner Academy Frome gaining approval despite widespread local opposition: https://humanists.uk/2013/10/22/first-steiner-free-school-opened-despite-opposition-local-population-schools-council-nhs-trust/
The British Humanist Association is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people who seek to live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity. It promotes a secular state and equal treatment in law and policy of everyone, regardless of religion or belief.