Lucie Stephens has sent Freedom of Information requests to every Local Education Authority in the country — over 200 of them.
She’s requesting information about asbestos in schools, and for a reason that’s very close to her heart. Earlier this year, Lucie’s mother, a teacher, died of mesothelioma, a cancer that is almost exclusively caused by exposure to that substance.
Now Lucie is acting on the promise she made before her mum passed away: “To do my best to make sure no-one else has to suffer like she has.”
We were really interested to hear how Lucie came to use Freedom of Information as tool in her campaign, so we got in touch to ask her a few questions.
After Mum’s diagnosis I wanted to know how safe my daughter’s school was. I wrote to them and got a positive response: her school does contain asbestos and they were willing to share this information with me.
I then wrote to my local council to request the same information for my borough. This took a lot longer, and involved frequently having to chase and remind them of deadlines missed.
I thought all parents and teachers should know if their school contains asbestos. I didn’t want them to have to struggle to access the information from their local council in the way that I did.
A friend suggested that FOI would be a good way of getting hold of consistent information, and at this point it also became clear that it would be a useful way to analyse how well asbestos is being managed in our schools.
Had you heard of the Freedom of Information Act, or used it previously?
I had heard about FOI before but hadn’t used it. It had always seemed a complicated and challenging process, so I was nervous of it. I knew what questions to ask but was still worried about getting the format right.
I had made contact with the National Union of Teachers (NUT), as they are also campaigning to get asbestos removed from schools. I asked them to advise on the best wording to use in order to get the information that I required, and they were really helpful.
Once you have all the data for every school in the country, what will you do with it?
Every parent and teacher should know if their school contains asbestos.
I am planning to use the data collected to produce an easy-to-access national map that parents and teachers can use to find out if their school is affected. By telling parents which schools have asbestos we are enabling them to hold their school, local education authority and ultimately (we hope) the Department for Education to account. The map will also be useful for campaigners and journalists concerned with the issue of asbestos in schools.
What would be the ideal outcome of your campaign?
I want policy on asbestos in schools to change.
Each school should be expected to produce an annual report on the extent of asbestos and how it is being managed. This will increase transparency and accountability until we get to the point where all asbestos in schools has been removed.
At the same time the Department for Education needs to change its approach. It needs to commit to the phased removal from all schools by 2028.
To achieve this they need to earmark funds specifically for asbestos removal and set annual targets for the number of schools that will be asbestos free. The phased removal should start with the most dangerous schools first but seek to remove all asbestos by 2028.
By revealing which schools contain asbestos, the campaign will make it easier for parents to hold the DFE to account over their plans for the removal of asbestos.
Have any of your FOI requests been turned down?
I made my requests to local authorities, asking them to provide the figures for every school in their jurisdiction. Most have not provided information for academies and free schools as they do not have a statutory responsibility for them.
There were various refusals and partial responses, from authorities which just issued generic statements that ‘all local schools built before 2000 contain asbestos’ with a link to their online schools directory, to those claiming that the information sought would take too long to collect, and so refusing to issue it, or requesting payment before the information could be released.*
Some areas withheld data on the number of claims that they had received from teachers, school staff and ex-pupils, stating that the figures were low enough to make it possible to identify the individuals concerned. Some areas refused to release details of the amount of money paid out in claims, stating that this would breach data protection. This rule was not applied consistently, though, as some areas did release figures relating to only one claim and settlement.
I was very irritated to find some authorities who, because they claimed to be unable to answer one of my seven questions, then refused to answer any of them. To date we only have data from 135 local councils of 152 approached. Some are very overdue in providing the data.
In gathering the data it was clear that there is huge variety in the ways in which asbestos is being managed in schools. It was also apparent that there is a wide range of ways in which FOI requests are handled.
What benefits did you get from using WhatDoTheyKnow?
Without WhatDoTheyKnow I wouldn’t have been able to collect the data.
The site was really easy to use. It was very helpful in managing the data as it appeared, and in reminding me when authorities were overdue in providing information.
In some cases I used my right to a review to challenge the handling of a request, and this led to further information being released. I definitely wouldn’t have made a challenge without the site making the process straightforward in the way it does.
It has also been great to have the data held on a public site like this, so that I’ve been able to direct journalists and campaigners to the source of the data directly.
The only challenge with the site was that the number of requests was capped. I can totally appreciate why this was, and in fact when I did contact the team and ask for this cap to be removed so that I could complete the requests in a shorter timeframe, they were very helpful. Having ascertained that I was sending bulk requests for a valid reason, they acted quickly to remove the cap.
You can read more about Lucie’s campaign, and lend your support, on her petition page.
* Note: Making an FOI request is almost always free, but authorities can charge under certain circumstances, and they can refuse to respond to a request outright if it will cost more than a certain amount — currently £450 — to do so.