Last week, in an exclusive story with Severin Carrell and published by The Guardian, I revealed that Prince Charles has finally admitted to lobbying the Scottish government, and in particular former First Minister Alex Salmond, in an attempt to help Teach First expand their operations into Scotland’s education system.
These latest revelations are part of a long-running saga around Teach First’s ambitions to gain a foothold north of the border. A six-month FOI campaign has generated numerous stories in both The Guardian and The Herald, highlighting the details not just of Teach First’s proposed Scottish operation but also the long-standing, well-connected and highly secretive lobbying campaign in which they have been engaged.
11 August – The Herald: Student teachers in class after five weeks of training
12 August – The Herald: Teach First calls on government to delay fast-track teaching course
14 August – The Guardian: Scottish ministers refuse to release Prince Charles lobbying letters
15 August – The Guardian: Publish Prince Charles lobbying letters, Scottish government urged
26 August – The Herald: Teach First leaders ‘wanted teaching watchdog disbanded’
28 October – The Herald: Fast-track teaching scheme condemned by academics
28 October – The Herald: Top Scottish universities shun Teach First scheme
During this period I also published a number of blog posts providing additional details:
The Sunday Herald’s investigations editor, Paul Hutcheon, also wrote about Teach First’s funding and their attempts to withhold information from FOI responses – both of these stories are relevant to what follows.
Even when the latest stories were published, however, the Scottish Government was still attempting to withhold some information, preventing its release to the public. This is no longer the case, with the government having now formally backed down and provided all of the information requested.
I am therefore able to provide a new, complete timeline detailing Teach First’s attempts to lobby the Scottish Government in order to gain access to the Scottish education system, as well as full documentation for the organisation’s proposed new programme – ‘Teach for Scotland’:
3 February 2009 – Joanne Lee of Teach First attempts to contact Maureen Watt, then minister for schools and skills, in order to set up a meeting with Teach First’s then Director of Leadership Development, Professor Sonia Blandford.
9 February 2009 – Scottish Government official Peter Allan replies to Teach First rejecting their approach. His letter states that “there is no current need for Teach First to be active” in Scotland and that “there is not a requirement for Mrs Watt to meet Professor Blandford to discuss her proposal at this time.”
16 March 2010 – Joanne Lee writes to the new education secretary Mike Russell (on behalf of Prof. Blandford) seeking to arrange a meeting between him and Brett Wigdortz (Teach First’s founder and, until recently, CEO). The email is sent on behalf of Prof. Blandford, includes press clippings from TES and the Economist and also references the fact that at that stage Teach First trainees had been unable to meet the necessary standards to become registered teachers in Scotland. Lee also lists the areas in which Teach First were operating and states that they would be interested in exploring how “Scottish schools might begin to share in this success.”
31 March 2010 – Mike Russell’s private secretary (Brian Taylor) responds to Professor Blandford rejecting the request for a meeting with the minister. Instead, Taylor writes that “officials from Learning Directorate, including Michael Kellet, Deputy Director, would be interested in meeting with you.”
9 June 2010 to 18 June 2010 – The documents show an interaction between Teach First representative Chloe Tait and Helen Reid of the Scottish Government’s Learning Directorate. This exchange seems to stem from a phone conversation between the two on 9 June 2010 to discuss Teach First “and in particular the funding contributions” involved. The interaction appears to end with Teach First being unable or unwilling to respond to some detailed questions about the funding aspects of their programmes, such as cost per participant and tutor salaries. They state that this because they relate to “contractual details which reside with our partnering universities.”
10 January 2012 – Joanne Lee once again writes to Mike Russell, this time following contact between Teach First and Duncan Hamilton, the former SNP MSP and political adviser to Alex Salmond. Lee’s email makes clear that Hamilton has acted as an intermediary between Teach First and the Scottish government. It is passed on to the Ministerial Correspondence Unit with the note: “Quick response required.”
15 February 2012 – Mike Russell’s private secretary (Laura Holton) responds to Joanne Lee advising that “Mr Russell’s diary is heavily committed for the foreseeable future” but that “officials in the Learning Directorate would be happy to meet.”
5 April 2012 – Brett Wigdortz invites Mike Russell to an “Evening Reception at the Scottish Parliament” facilitated by Lib Dem MSP Liam McArthur.
13 April 2012 – Mark Leishman (former journalist and private secretary to Prince Charles from 2009 – 2017) writes to Mike Russell. The email is addressed to “Laura” Holton. It is clear that he has already been in contact with either Holton herself or someone else in the Scottish Government (“As discussed last week”). Leishman includes a letter and briefing from Brett Wigdortz of Teach First (see next entry). Leighman writes that he would be “delighted” to introduce Wigdortz to Russell. This document was originally entirely withheld by the Scottish Government.
13 April 2012 – Brett Wigdortz writes to Mike Russell – immediately referencing the communication from Mark Leishman – once again seeking a meeting with the education secretary and providing a ‘briefing’ about the organisation.
1 May 2012 – Laura Holton responds to Brett Wigdortz, mentioning the covering letter from Mark Leishman, and confirming a meeting between the Teach First CEO and “Mr Russell’s officials” on 16 May 2012.
1 May 2012 – Laura Holton also confirms that Mike Russell will not be attending the Teach First reception at parliament (although the next document seems to contradict this).
16 May 2012 – Meeting between Teach First staff and officials of the Scottish Government’s Learning Directorate. Shown below are the heavily redacted version of this document originally provided by the government (left) and the complete, unredacted version now available (right). This shows that, amongst other things, the Scottish Government wished to keep the words “very persuasively” out of the public domain. It also highlights that the government officials were willing to have “exploratory discussions” with councils with a view to “a pilot in academic year 2014/2015 at the earliest.” As you can also see below, the government attempted to withhold the fact that Mike Russell still had “concerns about the application of the scheme in Scotland” – indeed, this was the very last redaction to be removed.
19 July 2013 – Brett Wigdortz writes to Mike Russell once again requesting a meeting. A recent meeting between the then first minister Alex Salmond and Prince Charles is mentioned in the opening sentence, and Wigdortz is explicit about this being a “follow up”. The original, redacted version of the letter is shown alongside a complete version.
?? September 2013 – Mike Russell’s private secretary replies to Brett Wigdortz confirming that the minister “will be pleased to meet with” him.
30 January 2014 – Meeting between Mike Russell and Brett Wigdortz & James Westhead (both of Teach First). Official briefing notes specifically reference “a meeting between the First Minister and Teach First’s patron, HRH The Prince Charles, Duke of Rothesay” as part of the reason “why” this engagement has been arranged. Despite the presence of three senior civil servants, and 19 pages of briefing documents, no minutes of the meeting are taken. Once again, redacted and complete versions of the key document are shown below.
20 February 2014 – Mike Russel writes to Brett Wigdortz following their meeting. He outlines the situation regarding Initial Teacher Education in Scotland and states that he does not believe, based on their meeting, that there is a “viable proposal on the table” from Teach First. The letter also ends with a noticeably terse paragraph about Teach First trainees working in Scotland.
1 March 2014 – James Westhead writes to individuals from the Scottish Government, GTCS, East Ayrshire council and Glasgow City council recapping a meeting held on 25 February 2014. He states: “The meeting was convened by the GTCS – Ken Muir – to explore what the potential value-add to the Scottish system would be” from the establishment of a Scottish version of the Teach First model. A follow up email (which seems to have originally been withheld) between two Scottish Government officials seems to question the accuracy of Westhead’s summary: “Mmmmm. Some interesting use of phrases and words there.”
13 February 2015 – Brett Wigdortz writes to First Minister Nicola Sturgeon asking for a meeting.
30 April 2015 – Nicola Sturgeon’s diary manager (Craig Smith) replies to Brett Wigdortz rejecting his request for a meeting but leaving open the possibility of future dialogue if Teach First have now “developed a proposal that addresses Scotland’s unique challenges.”
3 February 2016 – James Westhead writes to Rachel Sunderland (Scottish Government). He states that Mark Leishman (the Prince of Wales’ private secretary) “mentioned that there might be interest” from the Scottish Government in a new meeting with Teach First. As shown in the next entry, this communication leads directly to a later meeting.
22 April 2016 – Meeting between Scottish Government officials (John Gunstone and Stuart Robb) and Teach First staff (James Westhead and Reuben Moore). No notes appear to exist for this meeting. Another government official – Clare Hicks – actually requests any notes about the meeting on 25 May, adding that “we will want to keep on file.” She receives no reply.
21 May 2016 – Nicola Sturgeon writes to Paul Drechsler (Chair of the Teach First Board of Trustees) agreeing to a meeting between the two.
26 August 2016 – Teleconference between David Roy & Stuart Robb (Scottish Government) and James Westhead & Jonathan Dando (Teach First). Notes include the following sentence: “We agree to ensure they had the opportunity to tender if we go don that route.”
21 September 2016 – Meeting between Nicola Sturgeon and Paul Drechsler. The official briefing notes that “Teach First have long held ambitions of exporting their model of initial teacher education to Scotland.” Despite the presence of a senior civil servant, and likely themes being “Reform to Scottish education, changes to Initial Teacher Education in Scotland and the possible role for Teach First”, this is classified as a “private meeting”. No minutes are taken.
(Parts of the briefing documents were originally redacted by the Scottish Government. Both versions are shown below.)
25 November 2016 – Gareth Brown (of PR organisation Message Matters) writes to Craig Hancock (assistant private secretary to John Swinney) in order to arrange a meeting between Teach First and the deputy first minister. His email also includes a full briefing document for Teach First’s proposed ‘Teach for Scotland’ programme (a document which the government will later try to keep secret despite having already provided an entirely unredacted version).
10 January 2017 – Meeting between John Swinney and James Westhead (Teach First) & Peter Duncan (Message Matters). Remarkably, the document states that there are no “sensitivities” around this meeting, despite identifying Teach First’s ambitions to expand into Scotland, highlighting the fact that “over £1m of SG investment” is supporting the development of “new routes into teaching,” and stating that this meeting is “to hear more about the work of Teach First and whether the organisation could play a role in the context of Scottish education.” The notes also state that the “Equality and Human Rights Commissioner for Scotland is now advising Teach First” although she is unable to attend the meeting. Once again, no minutes are taken.
(As with Nicola Sturgeon’s meeting in September 2016, parts of the briefing documents for this meeting were initially redacted. Before and after version are shown below.)
28 February 2017 – Peter Duncan (Message Matters) contacts Colin McAllister (Special Adviser in the Scottish Government). Duncan asks McAllister to call him and also asks for assistance on three points relating to Teach First’s “excellent progress in drawing together a tangible offer to make available to the Scottish Government.” McAllister is asked for feedback on a proposed timeline and to help ‘facilitate’ an intervention whereby the Scottish Government would indicate to universities that engagement with Teach First would be “welcome”. He is also made aware of the possibility of a “helpful media intervention from the Teach for All network”. The third of these was originally redacted by the government, and both version of the document are shown below, along with the proposed timeline (a document which Teach First seem to have been especially keen to keep secret).
17 March 2017 & 4 April 2017 – James Westhead (Teach First) contacts Stuart Robb (Scottish Government) about the forthcoming government tender. The first email comes the day after a telephone call and is “a short note to capture our conversation.” It asserts that Robb “agreed that it would be useful to have a further more detailed conversation so that as commissioners you could understand fully what we could offer and our limitations”. It also claims that Robb agreed to “speak to Morag Redford to emphasise the Government view that HEI’s should be involved in discussions with Teach First around this potential tender”. Morag Redford is the chair of the Scottish Council of Deans of Education, a body representing the Scottish universities involved in Initial Teacher Education.
The second email follows up on the request regarding Redford, asking whether Robb had managed to speak with and “reassure her”. It also raises the possibility of Teach First and the Scottish Government engaging in a “partnership pilot rather than a tender” (the Scottish Government originally attempted to withhold this detail) and highlights concerns over the proposed development timeline of the government’ proposals. This email also makes reference to a meeting between John Swinney and Brett Wigdortz at the International Summit on the Teaching Profession, although no official notes of this meeting seem to exist.
Once again, redacted and unredacted versions of the documents are shown below.
9 May 2017 – James Westhead writes to John Swinney, raising concerns about the timeline for the government’s new tender and even suggesting that other organisations may “submit tenders that are unrealistic in both ambition, delivery timescales and resource requirements, as they do not have the track record or experience of delivering such programmes.” Westhead suggests an “alternative route” which would permit Teach First to bypass the public tender process and establish a “partnership between Teach First and the Scottish Government” involving a “two-cohort pilot programme in Scotland starting in 2019.” The government initially redacted the sentence at the end of the first paragraph on page two of this document – the full version is shown below.
First of all, well-publicised concerns about the Scottish Government’s approach towards transparency and Freedom of Information are front and centre here. Teach First – an organisation which was explicitly seeking a change in Scottish education policy that would be beneficial to their organisation – held three meetings with government ministers (including the first minister of Scotland) without any minutes being taken. There is no version of events in which the decision not to keep proper records of these meetings looks justifiable. Furthermore, the tenuous nature of much of the redaction, highlighted by eventual provision of complete versions of all of the documents requested, raises serious questions about the government’s application of FOI exemptions in order to keep information secret from the public. It is worth remembering that a full disclosure only happened after a six-month battle during which I was forced to go all the way to the Scottish Information Commissioner. The time, knowledge, contacts and, let’s be honest, sheer bloody-mindedness to follow this process all the way through is an obvious barrier to many citizens being able to fully exercise their ‘right to know’.
What is also absolutely clear from all of this is that Teach First has been engaged in a long-term, persistent and – crucially – extremely well-connected lobbying operation. They have utilised links that go to the very heart of the British establishment, including connections with the Prince of Wales and the engagement of a PR company which includes two former MPs (one a piece for Labour and the Conservatives) and, in Marco Biagi, a former SNP government minister, all in pursuit of policy changes from which they would clearly benefit. This is not the behaviour of a benign education charity interested only in social justice, but rather of a multinational business seeking opportunities for further expansion.
Some of the specific details now in the public domain, such as the brazen attempt to bypass the public tender process, or the request to have the government lobby universities on their behalf, should also raise extremely serious questions about Teach First’s conduct as they have sought to gain a foothold in Scottish education.
Their reasons for withdrawing from the government’s tender process also remain unclear. In response to the recent stories about Prince Charles, a Teach First spokesperson said: “The proposed timeline would not provide us with sufficient time to develop a new programme bespoke for Scotland.” This directly contradicts the comment they previously provided in response to this issue, with Reuben Moore (their Director of Leadership) having earlier insisted that they were “pleased the recently announced tender process will give the time to focus on developing an excellent new route into teaching.”
Either way, this is almost certainly not the end of the story.
Update: 17 December 2017
Teach First’s withdrawal from the tender process and the Scottish Government’s response
Following a further FOI request the Scottish Government has provided me with Teach First’s letter to the Scottish Government informing them that they would not be submitting a bid to operate the “new route into teaching”.
There are a few things to note here.
The first is the assertion that Teach First “welcomed the issuing of a tender”, a claim which appears to be at odds with the contents of the letter sent to the Scottish Government in May 2017. At this stage, James Westhead (Executive Director of Teach First) attempted to convince John Swinney to allow the organisation to bypass the tendering process entirely, seeking instead to establish a “bilateral arrangement” with the government.
The next issue is the reasons – plural – given by Teach First for not submitting a bid. We now know that they had concerns not just about the timeline involved but also with the funding available.
Regarding the timeline, Teach First have made clear that they “are uncomfortable with commencing recruitment in February to a programme that would not have been fully designed or accredited by then.” This is an entirely reasonable criticism of the government’s plans, which are laid out within the official tender documents (which I have already analysed):
In addition to their concerns about the time available for the programme, Teach First have now also highlighted what they regard as problems with the funding, which they regard as being “not sufficiently clear”. They also appear to have been put off by the fact that they “could not receive funding directly”.
Unsurprisingly, however, Teach First does not regard this set back as the end of the matter and clearly retain ambitions of Scottish expansion. Their letter once again seeks Scottish Government “support” in developing a relation with a university partner and also requests a further meeting with John Swinney.
The education secretary’s response does not appear to offer them any encouragement on either point:
If you would like to read original PDF versions of any of the documents included above please contact me at email@example.com
In recent weeks both The Herald (see here and here) and The Guardian (see here and here) have published stories regarding communications between Teach First – an organisation specialising in ‘fast-track’ teacher training – and the Scottish Government.
Below is a list of meetings dating back to 2012 along with links to the original documents from which this information has been drawn (released following a Freedom of Information request).
Those familiar with the Scottish Government’s record when it comes to transparency will be unsurprised to discover that no minutes were taken during three separate ministerial meetings with Teach First, despite official briefings being prepared and civil servants also being in attendance.
16/5/2012 – Scottish Government officials met with Teach First representatives
This meeting took place the morning after Teach First had hosted a reception at the Scottish Parliament. Then education secretary Mike Russell attended the reception. No names of participants are confirmed but an email suggests Brett Wigdortz (Teach First) may have been present.
Mike Russell asked “to be kept closely informed of developments…”.
30/1/2014 – Mike Russell met with Brett Wigdortz & James Westhead (Teach First)
Also present: Fiona Robertson, Ian Mitchell, Rachel Sunderland (Scottish Government)
A full briefing for this meeting was prepared but no minutes were taken and no further notes of what was discussed are available.
22/4/2016 – Stuart Robb & John Gunstone (Scottish Government officials) met with James Westhead & Reuben Moore (Teach First)
This meeting seems to originate in a conversation between James Westhead (Teach First) and Mark Leishman (Private Secretary to the Prince of Wales). A Scottish Government official makes a specific request for notes of the meeting but receives no reply. The email chain ceases at this point.
No minutes or other records
26/8/2016 – Stuart Robb & David Roy (Scottish Government) had a telephone conference with Jonathan Dando (Teach First)
This discussion seems to focus on the Scottish Government’s plans for “new forms” of teacher education in Scotland, and serves as preparation for the meeting with Nicola Sturgeon.
It includes the following:
“We agree to ensure [Teach First] had the opportunity to tender if we go down that route.”
21/9/2016 – Nicola Sturgeon met with Paul Drechsler (Teach First)
Also present: Clare Hicks (Scottish Government)
A full briefing for this meeting was prepared but no minutes were taken and no further notes of what was discussed are available.
The official briefing document classes this as a “private meeting”.
10/1/2017 – John Swinney met with James Westhead (Teach First) & Peter Duncan(Message Matters)
Also present: Stuart Robb (Scottish Government)
A full briefing for this meeting was prepared but no minutes were taken and no further notes of what was discussed are available. Prof Lesley Sawers (Equality and Human Rights Commissioner for Scotland) is advising Teach First but was unable to attend this meeting.
30 or 31/3/17 – John Swinney met with Brett Wigdortz (Teach First)
This meeting took place during the International Summit on the Teaching Profession 2017 in Edinburgh. Reference to the meeting appears only in a heavily redacted email exchange
NB The Scottish Government has also been lobbied by Prince Charles on behalf of Teach First, but refuses to release details of this communication. You can read about this story on The Guardian website.
As highlighted in this article for The Guardian, documents released by the Scottish Government also suggest that former First Minister Alex Salmond discussed Teach First with the Prince of Wales during a meeting on the 12th of June 2013
First published on August 11, 2017 by The Herald: http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/15466952.Student_teachers_in_class_after_five_weeks_of_training/ (shared byline with Andrew Denholm)
TRAINEE teachers would be allowed to start work in Scotland after a five week summer school under controversial proposals for a new fast-track course.
Documents obtained under freedom of information legislation show the educational charity Teach First has suggested the setting up of a Scottish Summer Institute as part of a briefing to John Swinney, the Deputy First Minister and Education Secretary.
Teach First is talking to the Scottish Government after ministers decided to put out to tender a new fast-track teacher training course targeted at plugging vacancies in rural schools and key subjects such as science, technology and maths.
However, the proposal for an intensive summer school will prove controversial because it undermines the traditional model of university teacher education where postgraduate students undertake a year of study – including work placements – before joining a school as a probationer in their second year.
Graduates entering the classroom after just a few weeks of training will also reignite concerns about unqualified teachers working in schools.
The documents state: “Participants would undertake an intensive Scottish summer school prior to commencing work in a school with a phased introduction to responsibility overseen by an experienced Scottish teacher.”
A second paper says: “The Scottish Summer Institute would be focused on providing Teach for Scotland participants with a strong grounding in the key areas of classroom management, assessment and planning.”
The documents also show Teach First is proposing a two-year postgraduate course with trainees being paid in the first year of their course once they complete the summer school and move to “on-the-job” training.
Trainees would then experience a “phased introduction to responsibility” over the course of their first year, during which they would “work towards General Teaching Council Scotland accreditation.”
Such a proposal is likely to be highly controversial as it would mean individuals working in schools, and even teaching classes, before meeting GTCS teacher standards.
Teach for Scotland trainees would also be “paid in accordance with their level of responsibility, which is increased to full pay by the end of the programme.”
In England, Teach First trainees receive “at least the basic salary for an unqualified teacher” during their first year, but no arrangements are currently in place to pay unqualified teachers in Scotland.
It also means paid Teach First participants would be working alongside university-educated students undertaking intensive work placement free of charge.
In addition, a number of “key requirements” are provided which schools must meet in order to receive a Teach for Scotland participant.
These include a commitment to provide individuals with a “significant leadership opportunity in their first year” as well as the chance to “act as the lead class teacher by the end of their first year.”
Scotland is currently facing acute teacher shortages in certain parts of the country and in a number of subject areas including, most notably in key STEM subjects. The Scottish Government is committed to developing new routes into the teaching profession, with the goal of attracting “high-quality graduates in priority areas and subjects.” £1m of funding from the Attainment Scotland Fund has been earmarked for this purpose.
A spokeswoman for the Educational Institute of Scotland said: “We do not believe that handing greater responsibility to unqualified graduates will lead to better outcomes for pupils.
“The Teach First proposal would give such trainees just a few weeks training before putting them into the classroom at the start of the academic year to teach pupils, presumably together with a qualified teacher, and then the trainees would rise to act as the lead class teacher before the end of the first year.
“The EIS believes the teaching responsibilities placed on these trainees would be premature and excessive, and would be to the detriment of the pupils.”
The spokesman said proposal that trainees would be employed by schools meant a school could have two groups of trainee teachers on postgraduate programmes working with pupils – one group being paid whilst the other is not.
She added: “This does not seem like an equitable system and it may deter graduates from entering the current well-regarded route into teaching. The notion of differentiated pay scales is also unlikely to find favour as it would undermine current negotiated pay scales.”
Rueben Moore, director of leadership for Teach First, said the proposals for Teach for Scotland were not yet finalised.
He said: “We’re clear that any new teaching route in Scotland would need to be a bespoke model that was designed and delivered for the Scotland context, with Scottish university and education providers.
“It would need to complement, not compete, with the pathways that already exist, and be befitting of the academic rigour and world class standards of teacher education in Scotland.
“The proposal discussed with the Deputy First Minister was some initial thoughts on an approach, but doesn’t reflect a final model.”
Mr Moore said Teach First would welcome input from the wider Scottish education sector on their ideas.
The General Teaching Council for Scotland, which would have to sign off any new proposal, said they had made it clear to Teach First that standards would have to be maintained.
A spokesman said: “We have had discussions with Teach First on a few occasions and, as Mr Swinney has stated, the principle of meeting our standards before becoming a teacher will continue in Scotland.
“Being properly qualified to teach in Scotland, and meeting the GTCS standards will remain the benchmark for aspiring teachers.”
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “Ministers have made clear that we will always maintain the high standard we expect new recruits to attain before they become fully-fledged teachers.
“This means that any new route into teaching must be accredited by the GTCS and will require a partnership with a university to maintain academic rigour and ensure programmes are of the highest quality.
“We have committed £1 million from the Scottish Attainment Fund to identify and develop new ways for people to come into teaching, and will shortly be putting a new initiative out to tender designed to attract high quality graduates in priority areas and subjects.”
An edited and shortened version of this article was published on 7th February, 2017. The following article is the original, full text.
Secretive meetings between the Scottish Government and a controversial lobbying organisation have provoked calls for reform.
On 25 October last year John Swinney – the Deputy First Minister and Education Secretary – met with representatives of the Hometown Foundation, a group pressing the government to allow the creation of ‘autonomous schools’. Like Free Schools in England, these would be publicly funded but exempt from local authority control.
Freedom of Information requests – which allow the public to access important information held by the government and other public bodies – have revealed that no minutes were taken during the meeting in October last year, despite the conversation being directly relevant to the Scottish Government’s school governance review, which was still ongoing at the time. In an earlier letter to the Hometown Foundation, Swinney had also advised that ‘autonomous schools’ proposals were to be considered as part of his review of the Scottish education system.
Information released under FOI laws also revealed that Colin McAllister, John Swinney’s Head of Policy and Senior Special Adviser, held a further meeting with the Hometown Foundation on 21 November. Again, no minutes of the meeting exist.
A follow-up letter – also available thanks to FOI requests – from the Hometown Foundation to John Swinney suggests that their representative, Bill Nicol, was told by McAllister that no decision on ‘autonomous schools’ would be made before the conclusion of the government’s schools review.
The Scottish Government has been repeatedly criticised for its inconsistent approach to keeping records of important or controversial meetings.
In August 2016 it was revealed that a meeting between the government and an EU commissioner, which related to serious delays in payments to Scottish farmers, had not been minuted. Weeks later, it was reported that the failure to keep minutes of a meeting between John Swinney and fracking giant Ineos meant that details of their conversation could not be revealed to the public.
In 2015, the Scottish Government was forced to admit that an entire series of meetings which led to the introduction of standardised testing in schools had gone unminuted.
Carole Ewart, Convener of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, sharply criticised the failure to keep minutes of meetings and called for a review of the state of FOI in Scotland. She said:
“Access to information is a human right and the Scottish Government must ensure its actions pro-actively comply with the European Convention on Human Rights.
Proof of secret meetings with lobbyists provides further justification for the Scottish Parliament to undertake an inquiry into the operation of the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act which was passed 15 years ago and became effective 12 years ago. The Parliament should also assess whether the investigatory powers of the Scottish Information Commissioner should be enhanced to prevent and punish those who would seek to adopt new practices which have the effect of reducing the effectiveness of the public’s right to know.
FOISA was supposed to stop, punish and prevent such actions.”
Scottish Labour MSP Neil Findlay, an outspoken critic of lobbying in the Scottish parliament, added:
“Once again the Scottish Government are caught out meeting lobbyists without recording what was discussed. It really does look like the Scottish Government are seeking ways to systematically evade FOI legislation by simply not recording information or writing minutes of potentially important meetings like this one, which sees lobbyists advocating free schools and minimising the role of local authorities in education, a direction of travel that concerningly Mr Swinney already knows too well.
It is also worrying that they think it is acceptable to consistently disregard the spirit of FOI and avoid sharing information with the public and in the process wilfully and regularly showing disdain for the founding principles of openness, transparency and accountability which the Scottish Parliament was built upon.”
When asked to explain details of the decision not to minute meetings with the Hometown Foundation the Scottish Government stated that they would be unable to respond in time and suggested submitting a Freedom of Information request.
A government spokesperson also said: “There is no requirement for minutes to be taken at all Scottish Government meetings, particularly at informal meetings. This is entirely in line with normal practice across the UK Civil Service.”
First published on 29 March, 2016 by the Daily Record: http://www.dailyrecord.co.uk/news/politics/scottish-information-commissioner-censor-herself-7645203
IN JUST 37 days Scotland goes to the polls to choose its new government.
Of course, the whole electoral process depends on one, utterly vital commodity – information.
We need to know who is standing and what they stand for to select our next batch of representatives but we also need to be able to hold the existing government to account.
If we don’t know how our government conduct themselves, then no amount of campaign slogans or glossy manifesto pledges will fill the democratic void we’re left with.
Fortunately, we have laws which exist to facilitate this process – Freedom of Information (FOI).
FOI allows us to ask official bodies – including the Government – to release information we consider to be in the public interest.
Often such organisations attempt to block the publication of material and, if an initial appeal fails, it falls to the Scottish information commissioner (SIC) to decide if the information should published.
In recent years, FOI disclosures have shone a light on the £7million of bonuses paid by public sector bodies in Scotland, the extent of corporate interest in fracking, serious concerns over safety at the Faslane nuclear base, and the fact the Fife police division being investigated over the death of Sheku Bayoh faced assault allegations almost every fortnight.
SIC interventions have also ensured that a number of extremely serious stories – such as government “feedback” leading to changes in a Scottish Police Authority report on officers carrying firearms – could not remain hidden from the people.
The SIC is, then, a hugely important feature of Scottish public life, charged with protecting the interests of the people and ensuring that government cannot prevent us from accessing information to which we are entitled.
But what if the opposite happened? What if the SIC hindered rather than helped accountability, openness and, ultimately, democracy?
In an extraordinary turn of events, that seems to be precisely what has happened.
In November, the website CommonSpace revealed that the SNP’s plan to impose standardised testing on schools was based on just four emails from two individuals.
This information was given to me after an FOI request to the Scottish Government.
Unfortunately, the emails were censored as the Scottish Government attempted to keep the contents secret.
The case was therefore taken to the SIC, who accepted the legitimacy of my appeal and a final decision was expected within weeks.
But then everything changed.
Last Tuesday morning, I received an email informing me that the SIC had “decided not to issue any decisions that might put forward a critical view of the ministers” prior to the Holyrood election.
The email continued: “In discussion with the head of enforcement, it has been decided to delay the issue of the decision on your case until after May 5, 2016.”
Put simply, the information I have requested may be uncomfortable for the Scottish Government so, even if the SIC agrees that it should be released, she intends to withhold it until after the votes are counted.
It doesn’t matter which political party you support – this is serious.
The people of Scotland need more information during an election campaign, not less, and it is clearly unacceptable for the SIC to initiate a policy that could lead to important information being withheld until it’s too late for voters to consider it.
FOI is vital to the functioning of our democracy, as is the absolute impartiality of the SIC.
In this case, however, it at least appears that the SIC has made a political decision and, in doing so, potentially protected the Scottish Government from criticism during an election period.
This is made all the more serious by the knowledge that purdah rules, which impose impartiality on civil servants during an election, do not apply to the SIC and have never before been invoked to delay the publication of material, critical or otherwise.
We must, therefore, ask: why now? What is it about this request that provoked such an unusual reaction?
We must also guard against any attempts to normalise this sort of situation or dismiss it as “typical politics”.
FOI is supposed to protect citizens from secretive governments and unaccountable public bodies, not shield politicians from difficult questions in the weeks before an election.
It is a right we must defend, even if that means scrutinising the very people who should be on our side.