By Paul Goodman
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Michael Gove is under attack again this morning over school playing fields. The Guardian has a story headed "Michael Gove 'made council let free school be built on playing field' ". (He didn't: Departmental officials spoke to the local authority in question.) And the Daily Telegraph reports that the petition being run by 38 degrees, the left-of-centre website, may soon pass 100,000 signatories. The petition claims that:
“The Education Secretary, Michael Gove, has quietly relaxed the rules protecting school playing fields, opening the door for them to be sold off to developers. Without their playing fields it’s hard to imagine the children of today will ever match this year’s record Olympic medal haul. And once playing fields are sold off and built on, they're gone forever.”
What are the facts? According to an earlier report by the Telegraph (which broke the story that the Education Secretary's original sell-off figures were wrong).
- Under Labour, 226 playing fields were sold off between 1997 and 2010.
- Since Mr Gove became Education Secretary, 30 sales have been approved.
- Mr Gove overruled recommendations not to sell school playing fields five times. (The Telegraph noted that decisions "have mostly been taken Lord Hill, the education minister, on behalf of Mr Gove".)
I may be wrong, but I thought that, in the immortal words of Norman Fowler, "advisers advise, but Ministers decide". In any event, Mr Gove may or may not be an autocrat (for the record, I don't think he is), but taking a different view from officials five times over playing fields can't reasonably be claimed to be proof. And to suggest that the sale of 30 fields puts our Rio 2016 prospects in jeopardy seems to me an exaggeration.
In a coruscating letter to Stephen Twigg, [hat-tip: John Rentoul] Labour's Education Spokesman, Nick Gibb, the Education Minister, points out that –
"in every case the local authority backed the disposal, the local community benefited from investment in improved education or sports facilities and children enjoyed greater opportunities."
Mr Gibb adds that –
"in the past Labour Ministers have taken the principled view that it is the quality of sports provision overall that matters not the fate of any individual patch of ground".
He also takes Mr Twigg to task for maintaining that Mr Gove tried to cover up his error (which the Telegraph did not claim).
The Labour spokesman's miserable display of inconsistencies and contradictions is par for the course: we're a long way from 2015, so less attention is being paid to that party's lack of readiness to govern than should be the case. But Mr Twigg's contortions are not the main point here.
It is, rather, that the Left is trying to paint a picture of the Education Secretary as a weedy, bookish, four-eyed wimp who cares nothing about sport, and doubtless believes that it is not Kaka but Kafka who may be on the way to Manchester United. Its main aim in doing so isn't to build up sport. It's to bring down Mr Gove's Education reforms (and the man himself).
I've said it before and will doubtless say it again: the Education Secretary is a tall poppy, and the Left wants to take him down. Don't be fooled by the rhetoric about Gold Medals from these losers.