Playing Field Sell-0ff Revealed
Posted: Fri, 17 Aug 2012 08:39
According to the Daily Telegraph Michael Gove the Education Secretary has sold off more than the 21 Playing Fields he first claimed.
Michael Gove has ignored the opposition of the School Playing Fields Advisory Panel to approve sell-offs five times in the past 15 months, documents show. It has also emerged that the number of sales given the go-ahead by Mr Gove is far higher than the amount admitted by the Coalition this month.
Mr Gove apologised for publishing the wrong figures, saying he had been given incorrect information by his officials.
Labour has written to Mr Gove's most senior civil servant demanding to know why the panel's advice was being ignored, while council leaders — who have a representative on the panel — said they were "concerned" about the developments.
Applications for the sales of school playing fields in England have to be approved by the Education Secretary, after being considered by the independent panel. But the identities of the panel members remain secret and their findings are not published.
In a response under the Freedom of Information Act earlier this month, Mr Gove disclosed that his department had approved the disposal of 21 school playing fields "since May 2010".
However, figures seen by The Daily Telegraph — which last week started a Keep the Flame Alive campaign to boost school sport following the success of the London Olympics — show that the true figure is significantly higher.
They show that the panel, which must by law give a recommendation on all sales before ministers make their final decision, received 35 applications to sell school playing fields between May 18, 2010 and July 22, 2012. Of these, 30 sales were approved by ministers, two were rejected, one was withdrawn and two are outstanding. The decisions were mostly taken by Lord Hill, the education minister, on behalf of Mr Gove. The documents show that Mr Gove overruled recommendations not to sell school playing fields five times between February 2011 and July this year, more than for the previous nine years.
The overruled decisions were to sell fields at Woodhouse Middle School in Staffordshire, Clarborough Primary School in Nottinghamshire, Elliott School in Wandsworth, south-west London, and Ingleton Middle School in North Yorkshire.
A fifth decision to approve a sale at Netley Primary School in Camden, north London, was approved by ministers despite being withdrawn and preliminary reports from the panel indicating a likely unanimous rejection. All of the schools are still operating, apart from Ingleton Middle School, which closed in July. In comparison, Labour ministers between 2001 and 2010 overruled the panel on sell-off decisions on just four occasions.
David Simmonds, Tory chairman of the Local Government Association's Children and Young People Board which has a representative on the panel, said: "We are concerned that ministers seem to be increasingly disregarding the advice of the independent School Playing Fields Advisory Panel.
"We are also concerned that this is likely to become more of a problem in years to come as we see more and more schools taking on academy status and becoming exempt from the guidance that applies to other schools. However, the sad reality is that some schools may feel selling their outside space is the only viable option open to them."
It also emerged that the panel, which was established in law by Labour in 1999 to slow the sale of school playing fields, was not consulted by Mr Gove over his controversial plans to abolish school playing field protections, disclosed by the Telegraph earlier this week.
The axing of the protections, which set out strict allocations for outdoor space per pupil, has led to fears that more school playing fields will be built on because ministers will no longer have any evidence base to reject applications.
One member of the panel said: "To have set up a panel of acknowledged sector leaders and then ignore their knowledge and experience is regrettable."
The panel comprises five individuals including representatives from Fields in Trust, a charity, the National Association of Head Teachers, and the Local Government Association. The chairman is appointed by Mr Gove.
Some 10,000 playing fields were sold off between 1979 and 1997 under the Tories. But under Labour, between 1997 and 2010, only 226 were sold.
Stephen Twigg, the shadow education secretary who has written to Mr Gove's most senior civil servant demanding to know why the Education Secretary had ignored the panel, said: "The fact that Michael Gove has ignored the advice of independent experts and ploughed ahead with selling off school playing fields shows he is shamefully out of touch.
"Michael Gove must now come clean and explain what appears to be a secret programme to sell off school playing fields. From the abolition of Labour's school building programme, to curriculum changes, Michael Gove has form when it comes to ignoring expert advice."
A Department for Education spokesman said that, when supplying the sales figures, officials failed to include requests to sell off playing fields under the previous government, which were subsequently approved by ministers.
The spokesman said: "We are sorry to say that the Secretary of State was provided with incorrect information about how many playing fields were disposed of since May 2010."
He added: "Each decision was made by a minister after careful consideration of the arguments."
Andy Reed Director of the Sports Think Tank said " The issue of School Playing fields is very emotive and the numbers can sound alarming. However, I always think this is a case of looking at the facts of each individual case because they are all different. Even though I am opposed to the sale in principle I have been convinced in the past that a case can be made for sale or disposal and therefore there will always be a trickle of sales/