Today’s furore over the sale of school playing fields shows that the process needs to be more transparent and that the independent panel should have to publish its decisions on a regular basis
I have a small confession to make. I was the one who suggested that an independent panel should be set up to recommend which applications for playing fields should be approved and which should be rejected.
The reason I did so was because such decisions are never black and white, and it made sense to involve the strongest critics in the decision-making process. So, while I think he has made a serious political error, I have some sympathy for Education Secretary Michael Gove this morning, as he is assailed for approving five applications that the panel had rejected.
But I also think the case highlights the need for far greater transparency in the whole process – and greater honesty about the issue on the part of the media.
In 1997, after thousands of playing fields had been sold off in the previous decades, Labour set a presumption against the sale of school playing fields for the first time. Schools should generally not sell off playing fields, except in circumstances where doing so would not reduce access to sport and the proceeds would be used to provide better sports facilities at the school.
Around 200 applications were approved between 1997 and 2010 and in these cases such criteria were met. After 2001, the decision-making process was effectively delegated to an independent panel where critics of the sale of playing fields were included so they had to look at the reality of the issue on a case-by-case basis. The presumption against their sale was also strengthened a little.
I suggested the independent panel having spent many hours poring over the applications on behalf of ministers and discussing with officials the precise reasons for any case that they planned to recommend for acceptance.
Although some such playing fields were overgrown, disused patches of land, there were also cases of viable playing fields that were being sold to make major improvements in the quality of sports and other education in a school. Inevitably, however, there were strong opponents to each sale and each approval attracted widespread criticism. Hence the independent panel.
So, while I have some sympathy with Gove this morning, I think he made a major political error not accepting the recommendations of the panel. And he was also unwise to reduce restrictions on the amount of space that schools have to provide for sports.
Remarkably, since the panel was established, there has been virtually no controversy about the sale of playing fields. Fields in Trust – as the National Playing Fields Association is now called – sits alongside representatives of head teachers and local authorities to act as an independent and fair-minded jury on each case.
By overruling the panel, however justified he may have felt he was in the individual cases, he has re-politicised a process that had effectively been de-politicised. More importantly, the publicity around today’s story may have made it that much harder for the panel to take genuinely independent decisions.
There is one aspect to the panel’s workings that should change, however. They should have to publish their decisions on a regular basis. The Telegraph claims this morning that these are not made public. When I suggested the panel, I certainly assumed that their decisions and membership would be made public. There is no justification for this not being the case, as happens with the Schools Adjudicator on admissions, for example.
That said, there must still be occasions – not many, it is true – when it is in the greater interest of pupils to sell a playing field to provide superior sporting facilities than it is for that land to remain largely unused. To their credit, Fields in Trust, through their participation in this process, recognised that reality. Others should too.
This blog first appeared on Conor’s Commentary