Education secretary ignored advice from panel five times over 15 months – more than in the previous nine years
Michael Gove has gone against expert advice from his own independent panel several times over the sale of school playing fields.
The School Playing Fields Advisory Panel has opposed the sell-off of such facilities five times over the past 15 months, but sales were still pushed through.
Ministers must approve any sales of playing fields, and despite a promise in the coalition agreement to protect them, figures show that disposals continue to rise.
The number of fields approved for sale by ministers since 2010 is also much higher than the government originally disclosed, according to figures seen by the Daily Telegraph. It said the panel received 35 applications between May and July this year, 30 of which were approved by ministers, two rejected and one withdrawn, while two remain outstanding. The decisions were mostly taken by education minister Lord Hill on behalf of Gove.
The government had said it approved the disposal of 21 school playing fields since 2010.
The panel is legally bound to make a recommendation on each sell-off and the documents show Gove ignored five recommendations not to sell between February last year and this July – more than in the previous nine years.
Labour’s shadow education secretary, Stephen Twigg, accused the government of running a secret scheme to sell off playing fields. “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,” Twigg said. “He also appears to have failed to disclose at least another 10 school playing field sell-offs when responding to a Freedom of Information request. This is misleading and incompetent at the very least.
“[He] must now come clean and explain what appears to be a secret programme to sell off school playing fields.”
Labour said it had also written to Chris Wormald, permanent secretary at the Department for Education and Gove’s most senior civil servant, about the education secretary’s apparent dismissal of expert advice.
Among the cases in which the panel was overruled included playing fields at Woodhouse Middle School in Staffordshire, at Clarborough primary school in Nottinghamshire and Elliott School in Putney, south-west London, where fields are being sold off to pay for a major refurbishment.
Critics have also warned that school sports fields are in danger after Gove relaxed government regulations that set out a minimum requirement of outdoor space that schools must provide for team games.
The rule change, which was made just days before the Olympics, has led many to fear a wholescale selloff of playing fields and other outdoor spaces and the failure to promote grassroots sports as part of the Olympics legacy.