A Parliamentary committee was asked to keep details of meetings about this summer’s exams fiasco secret in return for “summaries” of key documents, it has emerged.
In September, the education select committee requested all correspondence and minutes of meetings held between the Department for Education and Ofqual about the summer exams.
It also asked for copies of policy briefings given to the general public sector ministerial implementation group in May and the Number 10 policy unit in August.
But correspondence published by the committee shows that Williamson only offered MPs an “account” of the notes of the meetings, including “summaries” of the two specific papers they had asked for, and only on the proviso “that the account is kept confidential for committee members and not made public”.
“I believe the right balance between public interest and the helpfulness and transparency to the committee is to provide this account but to ask for your commitment in writing that it will be kept in confidence,” he said.
The education secretary also revealed that his Department plans to bat away freedom of information requests for the full documents on the grounds they relate to the formation of government policy and that publication would prevent officials from giving “free and frank” advice to ministers.
Schools Week revealed last month how Williamson had snubbed demand for details of key meetings, despite promising to be transparent on the issue.
Last week, schools minister Nick Gibb revealed during questioning by the committee that they had been offered a “summary” of the contents of meetings.
Recent correspondence published by the committee lays out the ongoing row between Williamson and committee chair Robert Halfon on the issue.
In a letter to Halfon on November 13, Williamson said he was “mindful” of the need to balance transparency with “the need for policy to be developed in a space where advice and opinion can be shared freely between ministers, officials and other interested parties, including Ofqual”.
He also revealed the DfE had received a “large number of freedom of information requests relating to the documents you reference (and others relating to summer awarding) and is proposing to withhold their key elements under either section 35 or section 36 of the Act”.
A section 35 exemption under the FOI act relates to information relating to the formulation or development of government policy, ministerial communications, the provision of advice by law officers or the operations of any ministerial private office.
Section 36 relates to information that “would, or would be likely to inhibit” the “free and frank” provision of advice or exchange of views.
Williamson continued that providing the documents to the committee in the form requested “could, I believe, prejudice the government’s ability to formulate policy effectively in the future, because of the chilling effect that release would have on the willingness of officials to offer advice to ministers and to exchange thoughts and ideas freely between the Department and Ofqual or other arms-length bodies”.
“This is of particular concern at a time when we are engaged fully on preparing for the challenges of how to run fair exams and assessments in 2021,” he added.
But in a response to Williamson sent on November 20, Halfon said it was “disappointing” that the DfE had refused to provide MPs with the papers, “and we do not regard the proposal of providing us with a summary of these documents as an acceptable solution”.
Halfon said the committee took Williamson’s concerns around a potential “chilling effect” seriously.
However, given the “unfairness and fall out” from this year’s exams, Halfon said he “sincerely believe[d] that the best way to restore public confidence is through complete transparency and openness”, he said.
“Our Committee has unanimously decided that this can now only be achieved by a full disclosure of these papers to our committee.”
But in a letter dated December 2, Williamson remained defiant, insisting his proposal to send an account and summaries was a “helpful and proportionate which both avoids these detrimental effects and allows for further scrutiny by the committee”.
“I realise that this is not the response that the committee was hoping for. I would like to reiterate that I am fully committed to being as helpful in advancing the work of the committee as it is possible to be.”