The Great Playing Field Sell off – a logial approach and a plea.

This comment is a month old, but my local intelligence network has only just borne fruit.

Michael Gove was castigated in the press once again for overruling experts to sell school playing fields.  21 pieces of school playing fields have been sold off since 2010. Note pieces, not whole fields, this is not necessarily denuding schools of their entire outdoor provision.

Gove also committed the heinous act of relaxing the strict rule on the minimum requirement of space schools must provide for outdoor team games.  The ruling states that a large school of 600+ pupils must have a minimum outdoor space of 35000 sq metres.  There does not appear to be an upper threshold. Therefore the ruling equates to around a maximum of 60 square metres per child, but could mean a minimum of 17.5 square meters per child, for a large 2000 student secondary conforming to the same legislation.  That’s a 4x4m box per pupil.

One thing that I fail to understand is how the “relaxation” of that rule, to allow local decision making and afford schools the freedom to operate can be a bad thing.  Any decision to sell off land would have to come from the school.  Gove is not trawling the country looking for tracts of land to sell off.  He is reacting to local need, initiated by local leaders.  Here are two case studies:

Woodhouse Middle School in North Staffordshire.  

They applied to sell of a tract of land to the local council to be used for the capitalist evil purpose of establishing an extended graveyard for the local church.  From what I can make out, the School Playing Fields Advisory Panel opposed the sale of this tract of land.  An outrage.  Here’s why.

1) There is little else to do in Biddulph these days apart from dying.  It is a growth activity.

2) The cemetery as exists is full to busting, not that the residents would complain of overcrowding.

3) I attended the school in the distant past and can only remember using it during Church functions.

  • It was rarely if ever used by the school.
  • It is on a lower terrace and had no sight lines from the buildings.
  • It is poorly drained.
  • The school has 30000 square meters of land without it.
  • The school has a capacity of 450 children.
  • This equates to 75 sq metres per pupil way in excess of the 60sqm per pupil norm for a 600+ pupil school.
  • The school backs onto a country park and National Trust Property, they are not short of access to outdoor space.
  • The land costs money to maintain and returns no benefit to the pupils.
  • Even the School Governors describe the sale as a win-win situation.

Here is the offending piece of land:

The red part is being sold as burial land, the yellow part is the school site.  The row of trees was planted in the 1990s and formed a barrier to reinforce that that area is not part of main use. This has been the case for years.

The School Playing Fields Advisory Panel is the group of experts who offer guidance to the Secretary of State, I have been unable to verify the membership of this Panel, beyond one group, The Sport and Recreation Alliance.  Their statement reads as follows:

The Sport and Recreation Alliance is a member of the Department for Education School Playing Fields Advisory Panel, which advises the Secretary of State on applications to dispose or change the use of school playing fields. To find out more about the protection of playing fields, visit

The Alliance also works to ensure that any changes to planning legislation are beneficial, rather than detrimental, to sport and recreation. 

Expert perhaps, objective probably not, if their goal is protection, they were never likely to advise for the sale of such as space.

So here is the real outrage.  The expert, unelected, anonymous advisory board resisted such a logical request to sell this piece of land for the good of the community the school serves.  This must call into question their objectivity and value to the country.  Michael Gove has, in this case actually done the right thing and ignored the vested interests of the “experts”.

Stephen Twig siezed upon this gold plated opportunity to say:

“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,”

In the case of Woodhouse Middle School, the opposite would appear to be true.  It does not however excuse and misrepresentation of the numbers of land disposals that may have happened.

Ingleton Middle and Primary Schools:

The middle school has been closed and the primary school extended to take in year 6.  Ingleton , then had significantly surplus school grounds.  The  where the “the experts” resisted the sale of land when children at the school had 110 sqm per child. The school has a capacity of 168 and the remaining grounds after the disposal would leave 79 sqm per child if the school was full.  The red part is the Primary School and the yellow is the now closed Middle School.

This would equate to hoarding land when other, more productive community uses could be made of it.

The community have just won a Lottery grant to develop the old middle school into a community hub.  The experts were standing in the way of progress for the community.  Was Mr Gove wrong to over rule them?

There is no sign of the land being sold for housing.

It would seem that Mr Gove made the right decision for that local community.

A plea:

We are as a profession, under attack.  We are angry with Michael Gove, rightly so.

Attacking him for instances when he has actually done the right thing makes no sense and weakens our case.

Please grow up, be more strategic and think about the way the public will percieve us.

Acting like this will simply serve to underline that we are no more mature than the children we are meant to be role models for.

If school playing fields are in danger, then it is from the very custodians of them, Governors and Headteachers, not the Secretary of State.  Gove has cleverly shifted the liability to them.  So logically, if we retain confidence in our School Leaders, there will be no problem.  One way of interpreting the furore over this episode could be to conclude that school leaders feel they should be saved from themselves.

In this case I believe the villains are the “experts” the School Playing Field Review Panel.  Shame on them.

Please stop the petty point scoring and name calling and focus on the big issues and the battles we can actually win.

One thought on “The Great Playing Field Sell off – a logial approach and a plea.

  1. The whole thing, as the examples above clearly show, is a classic case of political opportunism. It’s a non-story, move in people nothing to see here.

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