School playing fields: Government apology for wrong data
Published: 17th Aug 2012 03:01:09
The Department for Education has apologised after giving inaccurate figures about the number of school playing fields sold off in England.
This month, it said the disposal of 21 playing fields had been approved since the May 2010 general election but has now upped that figure to 30.
It said the department had been provided with wrong data by officials.
The paper also reported that ministers had overruled advisers to approve sales five times in the last 15 months.
Education Secretary Michael Gove and Prime Minister David Cameron were among those who relied on the earlier figures - obtained through a freedom of information request by the Guardian newspaper - to say that just 21 playing fields had been sold off.
The DfE, which admitted its error after the Daily Telegraph reported the inaccuracy, said the government had tightened protections for existing playing fields and "most decisions" on disposals were taken by junior ministers after "careful consideration".
"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," a DfE spokesman added.
The figures first given related to applications received between May 2010 and June 2012, he added.
He said those figures should have included requests received by the previous government and then approved by the coalition - which took the total to 30.
He added: "Ministers have sought to ensure that proceeds go to improving sports facilities for young people overall."
The revised figures come amid a debate about the legacy of the London Olympics after Team GB's medal haul of 29 golds, 17 silvers and 19 bronzes.
Historical figures show playing fields were sold under Labour, sometimes at a faster rate than under the present government.
Some 213 playing fields were approved for sale between 1999 and April 2010 under Labour, DfE figures show.
Michael Gove must now come clean and explain what appears to be a secret programme to sell off school playing fields”
An estimated 10,000 playing fields were disposed of between 1979 and 1997 when the Conservatives were in power.
Previously, the DfE has said sales had only been approved "if the school has closed, has merged or if equal or better facilities are being put in their place".
When the DfE initially claimed that 21 playing fields had been approved for disposal since May 2010, it said 14 were at schools that had closed and four were at sites that became surplus when existing schools amalgamated.
One was surplus marginal grassland on the school site and the proceeds were invested in the school library and better sports changing facilities, it added.
The department says it now publish more details about their decisions.
The Daily Telegraph said there were five occasions when ministers gave their approval to playing field sell-offs despite recommendations from a panel of independent advisers to keep them.
BBC political correspondent Ross Hawkins said the revelation was bound to be controversial amid the recent debate around the issue of boosting school sport participation in the wake of the Olympics.
Shadow education secretary Stephen Twigg said Mr Gove appeared to have "failed to disclose at least another 10 school playing field sell-offs" which was "misleading and incompetent at the very least".
"Michael Gove must now come clean and explain what appears to be a secret programme to sell off school playing fields," he added.
Earlier this week, critics warned that new rules on outdoor space for pupils in England to do PE would make it easier for secondary schools to sell off playing fields.
The schools previously had to provide pitches ranging from 5,000 sq m to 54,000 sq m, depending on the number of pupils, but must now provide only "suitable outdoor space".
The DfE said its "extremely strict rules" on playing fields were still in place.
Harvard CitationBBC News, 2012. School playing fields: Government apology for wrong data. [Online] (Updated 17 Aug 2012)
Available at: http://www.manchesterwired.co.uk/news.php/1446687-School-playing-fields-Government-apology-for-wrong-data [Accessed 11th May 2013]
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