By Matthew Barrett
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There was a story in the Guardian this morning, aimed to portray the Government as hypocritical, praising the success of Britain's Olympians, while undermining our future medal chances by selling off school playing fields. The newspaper reported:
"Ministers have approved proposals to sell off a London school's playing fields, including six tennis courts and a football pitch, despite mounting criticism of the coalition's planning for an Olympic legacy. The land at Elliott school in Putney, south London, is being sold off to pay for a major refurbishment. It brings the number of school playing field sell-offs approved by the coalition to 22. The Guardian revealed government figures on Monday which show that the sale of school sports fields continues even though ministers declared in the coalition agreement that they would seek to protect them."
However, the Department of Education is in fighting form. They have responded, disputing the figures. The Department says that of the 21 (not 22) playing fields the Government has approved for disposal, 14 belonged to schools that have closed, and four were part of sites that became surplus when existing schools amalgamated. Of the other three:
- One was surplus marginal grassland on the school site, the sale of which allowed investment in the school library and sports changing facilities.
- One was leased to a company to redevelop and improve a playing field for the school’s use that had poor drainage and was under-used. As a result of the development, the school's playing fields now include four 5-a-side pitches, two 7-a-side pitches, a full sized football and hockey pitch and a six-court indoor tennis facility. The school also profited from private hire of facilities outside school hours.
- One was due to be leased to an athletics club to improve sporting provision for both the club and the school, although the project did not go ahead in the end.
David Cameron confirmed this in an interview with LBC Radio this morning. He also said:
"They’re not being sold any more, but what we need is a combination of maintaining the playing fields, making sure the money’s going in, asking schools to, yes, make sure that they all do their bit in terms of sport. But then we need a big cultural change, a cultural change in favour of competitive sports. That’s what I think really matters, and one of the answers there is making sure the sports clubs really deliver in terms of sports in our schools."
A spokesman from the Department commented:
"We will only agree to the sale of school playing fields if the sports and curriculum needs of schools and their neighbouring schools can continue to be met. Sale proceeds must be used to improve sports or education facilities and any new sports facilities must be sustainable for at least 10 years."
For comparison, the Department have also provided numbers of school playing field sales since 1999 (readers may note the rise in 2007, which was when Ed Balls became the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families):
- 1999: 42
- 2000: 31
- 2001: 21
- 2002: 24
- 2003: 16
- 2004: 13
- 2005: 11
- 2006: 8
- 2007: 19
- 2008: 11
- 2009: 16
- Jan 2010 to April 2010: 1
- Since May 2010: 21
The Guardian's story this morning was misleading. Rather than mercilessly selling off school playing fields, the Government has been looking to improve facilities and expand the opportunity for children to play sport. The Government deserve praise for this, and the Guardian should have researched their story more thoroughly.