On 21 December, we added the National Centre for Circus Arts as a public authority on WhatDoTheyKnow, making it easy for anyone to send them a Freedom of Information request. We could have left it off the site and let our users find the email address themselves, but we didn’t want them to have to jump through hoops.⭕
Joking aside, this is a valid addition to the site — see below for more details about why this college is subject to the FOI Act — and one where we can imagine some interesting requests being submitted.
For example, one could ask for copies of the risk assessments used for the various circus skills taught to students — we imagine these would contain quite a bit of detail.
A procurement list might throw up some items you wouldn’t see from other education institutions, like juggling equipment, unicycles or clown shoes.
Prospective students who want to understand more about their chosen course’s application procedure and admission statistics often submit requests to UCAS, but applications for the National Centre for Circus Arts are handled directly (which makes sense: it would be hard to evidence circus skills on an UCAS form!).
Instead, anyone looking for more information about how the application process works could submit an FOI request directly to the college.
In addition, there is a wide range of requests that can be sent to almost any public authority on matters such as the use of public money, minutes of meetings, policies, letters, emails and contracts. All of these might have uniquely circusy angles when applied to this particular institution!
Some decisions are in-tents
It’s not always easy to work out whether a body is subject to FOI. For some bodies it’s really simple: they’re listed by name in Schedule 1 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (or the Scottish equivalent).
The National Centre for Circus Arts isn’t named here, but Schedule 1 does include references to definitions contained in other laws.
In the course of recent work to find more bodies to add to WhatDoTheyKnow, our volunteers have read and interpreted three pieces of legislation and an official register to work out which higher education institutions are subject to FOI.
The upshot of our research is that we consider that all bodies listed on the Office for Students register as “Approved (fee cap)” are subject to FOI. This includes the National Centre for Circus Arts (registry entry). Helpfully, the Centre acknowledges the fact that it is subject to FOI on its website which not all higher education institutions do – kudos for that.
UK higher education institutions walk a tightrope between the public and private sectors. They are subject to rules such as competition law that are normally relevant to private business, whilst at the same time being subject to laws that apply to the public sector such as the equality duty and FOI. It’s quite a lot to juggle. 🤹
Interestingly, the debate about the role of circuses in public life goes back to Roman times where the provision of food and entertainment to the poor were used to gain political power.
WhatDoTheyKnow lists a number of obscure public authorities on the site ranging from the Crown Estate Paving Commission to the Treasure Valuation Committee but the National Centre for Circus Arts is certainly one of the more unusual higher education institutions we list. There can’t be many places where people jump through fire for their graduation (page 13 of the 2023-24 prospectus).
We wish all our users a happy and healthy 2023.
Image: Jonny Gios
Some journalists focus on very specific areas in their use of FOI.
Dániel G. Szabó is an editor on Hungary’s Atlatszo Oktatas, a blog hosted on the major news outlet Atlatszo, and run largely by students. He revealed how FOI has been the key to exposing corruption in the country’s student unions.
It’s a blog focusing on corruption in higher education in Hungary, with a very heavy reliance on freedom of information requests and the analysis of the data acquired through FOI.
Hungarian student unions, where future political elites learn the basics of democracy, are infected with corruption and our blog works to reveal it.
We established the national jurisprudence on the accountability of student unions: courts ruled in our cases for the first time that student unions are to respond freedom of information requests and their expenditures should be transparent.
We sued many state-financed and also religious schools, and tracked the fate of several million euros spent by student union officials who are in their twenties. Without freedom of information laws and court rulings, the data on these funds would have never came to light.
If you’re a journalist yourself, you might be interested in our latest project.
But don’t forget, FOI isn’t just for journalists: anyone can make their own requests for information at WhatDoTheyKnow.com.
Image: Bicanski (CC-0)
28 September is International Right To Know Day, and this year it’s a particularly important milestone. 2016 marks the 250th anniversary of Freedom of Information as a concept.
If you’re a teacher of Citizenship or even subjects like Law, History, PSHE or English, you may be interested to know that we have free lesson plans available.
These cover a wide variety of topics, including a half hour lesson on Freedom of Information, aimed at years 10-13 — there are also lessons on concepts such as democracy and having a voice in society. Developed last year in collaboration with the Citizenship Foundation, the lesson plans were created and tested by teachers and have been downloaded by hundreds of schools since their launch.
You might also be interested to see this entertaining article from the US Freedom of Information website Muckrock, aimed directly at high school students. It is, of course, American oriented, but it’s a very good introduction to the opportunities FOI affords younger people.
So, why not mark International Right To Know Day by introducing your students to the concept of FOI, and showing them what they can do with it in the areas they care about?
The latest paper from our Head of Research, Dr Rebecca Rumbul, is available for download.
Drawing on interviews with 40 individuals in government and civil society, this research strives to answer the question: how do government and civil society initiatives and innovations in New Zealand and Australia attempt to reduce digital exclusion amongst digitally under-represented user-groups?
Rebecca pulls out the best practices from these two countries, and looks at how they could be replicated here. The result is four strong recommendations for the UK’s policymakers.
mySociety volunteers help us in all kinds of ways, and not just with coding stuff. This time we need skills and experience that only teachers can bring.
Here’s the thing: we’ve often heard from teachers of subjects like Politics, Citizenship and Social Studies that they’d love to integrate TheyWorkForYou, WriteToThem – and maybe even FixMyStreet – into their classroom activities.
We’d love it too. Our remit is to make democratic processes more accessible to all parts of society, and if this means that a whole new generation see contacting your politician as a perfectly normal and easy thing to do, well, that’d be a big win.
We want to provide downloadable lesson plans and resources – but we are not experts and we want to make sure that we get this right. Obviously, materials need to fit in with the present curricula, and be genuinely viable for classroom use.
There’s another possibility here, too – some of our software could be used in the classroom for students interested in coding and creating a new wave of online democracy projects themselves.
So: if you’re a teacher with a particular interest in democracy or digital technology, and you’d be willing to have a quick chat and then prepare some materials that we could provide for schools all across the UK to download, well – we’d love to hear from you. Or if that sounds like too much commitment, but you just have some ideas, let us know. Please mail us on firstname.lastname@example.org.
Though mySociety does not have a specific focus on women’s education our websites are still powerful tools for learning. Education doesn’t just take place in the classroom. Nor does it stop when you leave school, college or university. Websites like Mzalendo in Kenya help educate people about their politicians. They provide information about what their representatives have said in Parliament, about their political and work experience. This information can help Kenyan citizens to hold their elected representatives to account, and to understand more about the decisions that affect their lives.
Alaveteli is perhaps an even stronger example of this. Visiting an alaveteli website not only allows you to request information, it allows you to search through information others have requested and learn from it, potentially about topics you were unaware of before. We know that in the UK each request on WhatDoTheyKnow is read by an average of 20 people. And by having that information available publicly and allowing people to educate themselves about the actions of their government, it is easier for citizens to hold those in power to account.
It seems like a FixMyStreet site might not have a connection to education. But we think it does! At the most obvious level, FixMyStreet provides councils with information. They learn where problems are in their area and gain a deeper understanding of the issues that concern their citizens. This flow of information is not just one way though. Residents that use the site suddenly find they can take ownership of the problems in their local area, and get them resolved. At times, governments – local or national – can appear to be vast and distant. By using something like FixMyStreet residents can begin to see the practical role they can play in improving their own lives. This is a very important thing to learn.
Our sites are being set up and used by people of every gender, all over the world. This is an amazing thing and one we wholly support. Access to tools for learning should not be restricted dependent on race, class, gender, religion or ethnicity. The opportunity to learn should be open to all.
The world knows Malala Yousafzai. General Ban Ki Moon said it best when he said “When the Taliban shot Malala, they showed what they feared most: a girl with a book.” Because information and education give women, and everyone else in the world, the knowledge to stand up and say “This is not right.”, to make their lives better and to take a stand for a more open, free society.
That’s one of the reasons we create the websites we create, to help people educate themselves to gain knowledge and skills which can start the process of making their societies more open, transparent and participative.
Happy International day of the Girl.