If you’re a minister, or even the Prime Minister, and you take to the airwaves holding a page of figures aloft, it’s always a good idea to make sure the figures are actually correct before you enter the studio. When David Cameron read out a break down of playing field sales on LBC radio during the Olympics, he was trying to crush reports that under this government, schools are continuing to reduce their sports facilities in return for money. You can watch the film of Cameron with his sheet of paper here.
The problem is that this sheet of paper wasn’t actually correct when it said there were only 21 sell-offs, and as Christopher Hope reveals in today’s Telegraph, there were actually 35 applications to sell school playing fields, of which 30 were approved. There are still two outstanding decisions, while the others were either rejected or withdrawn. In a statement this morning, the Education department said:
‘We are sorry to say that the Secretary of State was provided with incorrect information about how many playing fields were disposed of since May 2010. The figures presented to the Secretary of State, and published by the department, related to applications received between May 2010 and June 2012. Those figures should have included requests received by the previous government and then approved by the coalition.’
It’s embarrassing that officials got these stats wrong, and that there were nine more sell-offs than the department had originally claimed. It’s never particularly impressive when ministers and advisers are trying to shoot down a row using statistics that are wrong.
But what is more significant and far more interesting is that Michael Gove’s department overruled the School Playing Fields Advisory Panel five times in the past 15 months. By contrast, Labour overruled the panel just four times between 2001 and 2010. This weakens ministers’ case when they attack the Labour government’s record on school sport, and claim they are being tougher when it comes to ensuring schools are providing adequate facilities. Hugh Robertson has expressed some of his exasperation with the way this debate has been conducted so far: today’s revelations will not help the sports minister, either.
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