According to statistics published earlier this month, the government has sold off 31 school playing fields since it came to power. Further information
The revelation was embarrassing for education secretary Michael Gove, not only because he had previously said that the number was only 21, but also because it came in the aftermath of London 2012, when a positive and public debate was being held about the future school sports.
Prime minister David Cameron was quick to defend the government’s record on playing fields, arguing that each of the sales in question could be justified. During an interview with LBC Radio, he also said: "It was a mistake that playing fields were sold in the past. They're not being sold any more.”
The oversight in totting up the number of sold-off playing fields – which was revealed by the Daily Telegraph – did not help the government. A Department for Education (DfE) apology followed soon after the report. It 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.”
It has also come to light that five of the sales were approved against the advice of the School Playing Fields Advisory Panel. The DfE statement added: “Each decision was made by a minister after careful consideration of the arguments.”
Fields in Trust, one of the members of the Advisory Panel, is concerned by the “seeming inaccuracies” in the numbers of fields that have been sold-off.
Alison Moore-Gwyn, chief executive of the charity, which works to protect outdoor sites, explained: “We are pleased that the government has apologised for their mistake, as they should not have made one. We are also aware that the government has overruled the decisions of the Advisory Panel on five occasions between February 2011 and June this year. Obviously this concerns us, and we would look for reasons to be given as to why our specialist advice has been ignored.”
Clive Efford, shadow minister for culture and sport, added: “We seem to be moving backwards. At a time where we are expecting more people to get into sport, it is ridiculous that playing fields are being put up for sale.”
Campaigners are also angry that a change in legislation over school playing fields could lead to more sites becoming vulnerable to sale.
Currently, schools must have a certain number of square metres of outdoor space dependent on pupil numbers – such as at least 35,000 square metres for a school with more than 600 pupils. However, from October, the law will change to direct that schools must only provide “suitable” outdoor space.
Ms Moore-Gwyn is concerned by the change and is appealing to headteachers to use their professional judgement when deciding how much outdoor space they need. Fields in Trust is also looking to meet Mr Gove to discuss the issue and Ms Moore-Gwyn said she was “optimistic”. She added: “I think that the government will listen to us, as I feel they have a genuine wish to capitalise on the atmosphere of Olympic inspiration.”
The playing fields row erupted during a wider debate on the future of school sport as ministers tried to capitalise on success of the London 2012 Games.
Prime minister David Cameron said that he wants to see “a big cultural change in favour of competitive sports” and backed the School Games programme, which was launched earlier this year with its finals being held at the Olympic Park.
However, his ministers ran into trouble again as critics pointed out that despite saying it wants to promote competitive sport, the government in 2010 removed much of the £162 million funding for the School Sport Partnerships (SSPs).
Mr Gove faced a huge backlash from the public, sports teachers, sporting stars and opposition politicians when he announced the cut. As a result, in late 2010 the government performed a partial u-turn and found £47 million to fund SSPs until the end of the 2010/11 academic year. The DfE also said it would provide money for secondary schools so a PE teacher can spend one day a week encouraging competitive sport in primary schools and increasing inter-school competitions. This money will last until the end of 2013.
The SSPs provided specialist coaching, created links between schools and clubs and introduced many young people to competitive sport. They were labelled as “probably the most successful school sports scheme ever” by Malcolm Trobe, deputy general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders.
Mr Gove has also been attacked for his move to scrap the two hours of sport a week target introduced by Labour.
While a spokesperson for the DfE said the target was “an unenforceable aspiration”, campaigners are worried that without a target, some schools would not give their pupils enough time for sport, instead focusing on league table targets.
Ms Moore-Gwyn said it was a “regrettable decision, especially for the children themselves, as sport leads to good health and improved classroom performance”. Dame Tessa Jowell, who was culture secretary at the time London won the Olympic 2012 bid, said she wanted “a chunk of time every week” to be dedicated for sport.
However, current culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt, has backed the prime minister and the DfE, insisting that targets in education “don’t always get you the results that you want”.
The DfE statement added: "No more than two in five pupils took part in competitive sport when we told schools they no longer had to inform us of how much sport pupils were doing.
"The secretary of state made clear in his letter to Baroness Campbell in October 2010 that he would expect every school to want to maintain as a minimum the current levels of PE and sport each week for every pupil."