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.

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