Michael Gove and the lack of transparency over playing field sales

Yet more drama on, or rather about, the playing fields of the UK’s schools.

It has emerged that five times in the last fifteen months, Michael Gove has overruled the advice of School Playing Fields Advisory Panel to approve playing field sell-offs. This panel must, by law, give a recommendation on all sales before ministers make their final decision. The number of total sales since May 2010 is also higher than Gove previously announced – 30 rather than 21.

Before we get into any squabbles about the rights and wrongs of selling school playing fields, I’d like to direct you to Alan White’s excellent blog on the subject for the NS - as he points out, despite all the party-political howling about relative numbers of sales under different governments, there are only very tentative ways of determining the net figure, since we always talk about sales and don’t include the numbers of new fields.

That controversy aside, there are still two very worrying aspects of these latest revelations. Firstly, that Gove is getting basic figures wrong again. Remember the mistakes on the Building Schools for the Future list in July 2010, where 25 mistakes on the published version lead to the education secretary having to apologise in writing to the Commons. He’s apologised again this time, “saying he had been given incorrect information by his officials”.

Secondly, and perhaps of greater concern, is the lack of transparency surrounding the independent advisory panel that Gove has overruled. There are five members, but their identities are secret, and their findings are never published, so we can’t access the same information that education ministers had when choosing to ignore the panel’s advice on these five occasions. Given the small numbers of fields which have been sold, the panel has been disregarded on a not insignificant proportion of them. As more schools receive academy status and wield greater autonomy, the lack of transparency around this panel begins to call into the question the purpose of having it at all, if ministers are content to overrule it.

David Simmonds, Tory chairman of the Local Government Association’s Children and Young People Board is quoted by the Telegraph as saying:

“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.”

Update 10:50 17/08/2012:

Alan White has just sent me the following thoughts about today's story, which I quote in full:

Since I wrote my blog on this subject, two stories have emerged. The most recent is about the government ignoring the School Playing Fields Advisory Panel, the second is about the government relaxing the restrictions on sales. The first story raises some questions: of the five playing fields named where advice has been ignored, there only appear to be complaints locally about one: Elliott School, which has yet to be approved. The reasons for the others  are outlined here. I also wonder why Fields in Trust, which is the pressure group for this issue, didn't raise it sooner - or give a statement when the story broke? It has a representative on the Panel, and its chief executive did a round of media interviews only a few days ago. She concentrated on the laws governing free schools and academies - on which I think there clearly is a case to answer. And I think there's a further case for Gove to answer on the reduction of regulations surrounding field sales. Schools do need to expand and often have other sports facilities open to them - but the government needs to win the argument, not sneak out a change a week before the Olympics.

 

Michael Gove has admitted that the number of total sales since May 2010 is also higher than previously announced. Photograph: Getty Images

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

Photo: Getty
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The Conservative problem? They don't know what they want from Brexit

The government sees leaving the EU as an objective in of itself, which is one reason why it is bungling it. 

What are the areas of contention in the first stage of the Brexit talks? There are two big stumbling blocks: the so-called “divorce bill” and the rights of the three million citizens of the European Union living in Britain and of the British diaspora living in the EU27.

The “divorce bill” relates to the question of how much the United Kingdom owes to the bloc. It relates to programmes and budgets agreed on and in some cases begun before the UK voted to leave. As I’ve written before, the divorce analogy doesn’t really work: it’s much more like leaving a dinner with friends before the bill has arrived. If you have ordered dessert, and it has already been whipped up, you still need to leave enough to cover your share even if you are skipping out on the final course.

The United Kingdom has agreed in principle that it will pay its outstanding commitments to the European Union. What is keeping the sides apart is a different account of how much the United Kingdom owes, not whether or not the United Kingdom owes money.

There are good arguments on both sides. Obviously, the United Kingdom should pay for budgets it already agreed to while still in the EU. But, as British budgetary contributions have paid for assets – buildings, software,  and so on – the United Kingdom has a strong case that some of the cost of those assets should be deducted from the final total. And, with the British government seeking a Brexit deal that means the UK continues to participate in EU-wide research and security programmes, there is a case, too, that the cost of the UK’s exit bill should take that into account. (If the United Kingdom is still paying into and participating in Europol, the EU-wide security programme, then those payments should be deducted from the Brexit bill.)

But the difficulty is that the United Kingdom hasn’t laid out what it sees as a reasonable calculation and expectation for the bill, which is one reason why negotiations on this area aren’t proceeding.

That speaks to the wider problem of the government’s Brexit policy. Although there are a few exceptions, most Leave-backing Conservative MPs don’t really have a plan for after Brexit: leaving is a destination, not a staging post to anything else. It is the end of the process, when of course the most important questions around Britain’s Brexit deal hinge on the shape and size of the British economy and the direction of British policy afterwards.

It was summed up by Michael Gove’s one-word answer to Mary Creagh’s question about how the United Kingdom would regulate the chemicals industry after Brexit. This is an industry that is Britain’s largest manufacturing export sector – it exports around £50bn a year – adds more than £15bn to the British economy and is of increasing importance to UK plc.

 His response?

“Better.”

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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