Henry Forth writes from Westminster: The coalition government has had to apologise for telling at the very least unintentional fibs over the number of school playing fields it’s selling off.
Last week, PM David Cameron told the world that the legacy of the Olympics would be to give all children the opportunity to play sport, even to compete in school games. This week the Prime Minister, in spite of his bucket shop speeches, has shown every half observant parent and kid that he’s beholden not to principles but to bank balances.
The Olympic pledge and the glorious legacy is discarded by the Cameron government and his Education Secretary Michael Gove. This week, Gove came out with figures about the number of school playing fields sold off for development when children desperately need them. It now turns out that someone was hiding the truth – a third more were flogged than the Department of Education had admitted.
On paper it does not sound very much, but in this month alone the government gave permission for schools to sell 30 playing fields but told the public that it was only selling 21. Gove, of course, blamed his officials. That’s what honourable ministers now do. Not my fault they cry. So who is the boss then? Gove. Who is in charge of education? Gove. Who then takes the blame? No way Gove is going to admit to anything. The officials carry the can.
But the story is bigger than the two-faced policy decisions of the Cameron government. Here’s what has happened: the previous government and the Cameron led coalition have, in spite of saying publicly that they were going to halt the wholesale selling of precious playing fields, have done nothing of the sort. Hundreds have been quietly flogged to fat fee paying developers.
The Blair and Brown Labour governments sold 213 school playing fields while saying they were not going to sell any more.
But the Tories under Thatcher and John (now Sir John) Major sold off 10,000 between 1979 and 1997. Yes, they flogged them to anyone with the dosh: ten thousand playing fields – and then blamed the kids for not trying.
Worse is to come: Gove’s department has overruled advisers who said it was wrong to sell off playing fields.
A spokesman from the Department for Education says: ‘Ministers have sought to ensure that proceeds go to improving sports facilities for young people overall.’
Whoever told the spokesman to say that should be rated in the long contested Official Whitehall Public Fib-or-Worse Statement of the Year. Ministers do no such thing. The fields are sold to keep existing schools going. That is the level of successive governments’ commitment to education – an essential strand in our society that has been continuously messed about with since the late 1950s by successive ministers including the politically adorable and useless Shirley Williams and don’t forget, Margaret Thatcher.
Getting rid of wonderful facilities (admittedly some went if a school was closing or merging) has left British schools with the cynical policy of having to provide only “suitable outdoor space.”
So, what did the utterly trustworthy Cameron say after the Olympics? There needs to be ‘a big cultural change’ of attitude towards sport in schools and schools must return to the ‘competitive ethos’ in sports. He says that while his appointed minister, Gove, is carrying out the government’s grubby cheating. The government is cheating British kids at a time when hard working young athletes are setting examples that other youngsters want to follow.
Without examining the government political pressure cooker that children are thrown into by the likes of China and some of the old Eastern Bloc countries, it should be remembered that British schools offer some of the shortest sports times and the worst facilities in world education.
People like Cameron point to Team GB’s number three slot in the Olympic medal tables and say that the UK must be doing something right. The issue is bigger and twofold: the government says one thing and is doing the other. Rufty tufty adults can handle that. Kids grow up to believe that unless they’re at private schools they can forget the facilities that the Camerons are saying must be theirs by rights, even kindness.
Secondly, this is not about winning medals. It’s bigger. It’s about an opportunity to do sporting things that will be fun, will be competitive, will be, frankly, a great improvement on the national youth sports – texting and hand-held game playing.
But neither Gove nor Cameron have any real idea about that and worse still, do not seem to care. The hard part of all this is that their predecessors in government did no better.