As public bodies, state schools are obliged, under the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act 2000, to publish certain information about their activities and produce information requested by members of the public. The principles of the FOI Act are:
Information Covered by the FOI Act:
The FOI Act covers recorded information that is held by the school including printed documents, computer files, letters, emails, photographs, and sound or video recordings. This means that schools do not need to provide information they do not collect and hold as part of their regular routines. So, if the information is just in someone’s head and is not recorded, this is not subject to a Freedom of Information Request. As the guidance on the ICO website states, “You do not have to create new information or find the answer to a question from staff who may happen to know it.”
The Difference Between a Freedom of Information Request and a Subject Access Request:
It is important to remember that the FOI Act does not cover personal data as this is covered by the GDPR and Data Protection Act 2018. Access to personal data is made via a Subject Access Request and not a Freedom of Information Request although many people may confuse the two.
The School's Responsibilities Regarding FOI Requests:
When receiving an FOI request, a school has 20 school days (or 60 working days – whichever is shorter) to respond to the request. The time starts when the school receives the request and extra time may be allowed if further clarification is needed from the requester.
A valid FOI request must be in writing (letter, email, social media etc), include the requester’s real name, include an address (postal or email) for correspondence, and describe the information requested.
Under law, schools are expected to release the information (if they have it) unless there is a good reason to withhold some or all of it. Our FOI Policy template contains the list of the possible exemptions that could apply. Remember though, the default position should be the disclosure of information, and information should not be changed or deleted once it has been requested.
Guidelines for Responding to an FOI Request:
Refusing an FOI Request:
It is possible to refuse an FOI request on the grounds of cost, if a request is vexatious, or if it repeats a previous request from the same person. Our FOI Policy template sets out some of the criteria for identifying if an FOI request exceeds a cost limit or is considered vexatious, and further detailed advice can be found in the ICO guidance linked below.
The only other time that you may refuse a request is if the school identifies an exemption. These are designed to protect information that should not be disclosed. Some exemptions are ‘absolute’ which means information can automatically be withheld if they apply. Other exemptions are ‘qualified’ which means the decision to withhold the information or not is subject to the public interest test – does the public interest in withholding the information outweigh the public interest in disclosing it or not. Often the public interest will be to disclose the information even if, for example, the information is commercially sensitive. The bar is set high for preventing disclosure.
For more information on the exemptions themselves, see our FOI Policy template or the ICO’s Guide to Freedom of Information.
ICO’s Guide to Freedom of Information - https://ico.org.uk/for-organisations/guide-to-freedom-of-information