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 web editor of the New Statesman.

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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.