In the post Olympic euphoria about team games and individual sporting achievements we have become fixated by school playing fields.
I am all in favour of schools having good playing fields. They need space to allow team games like football, cricket, netball and hockey. They need space to permit summer track and field events. A school set in fields offers a more pleasing environment in many ways, though this may not be possible in city schools where land is at a premium.
Nor do I favour selling off good playing fields to make money from housing development where the school is then left with inadequate facilities or a cramped environment. I went to a state primary which had a modest field behind the school which permitted some team games and a green lung at play time. I appreciated that at the time. My secondary school did have playing fields, though I remember the school often preferred to make us run a cross country for exercise which took us way beyond the grounds of the school. Local lanes became improvised playing fields. Not all sporting facilities have to be on school land.
What is curious about the latest debate is the assumption that only the Secretary of State can be trusted to make the decision to prevent the sale of playing fields, and the implication that when he allows local people to sell a playing field this is always a wrong decision.
I think Secretaries of State should be careful before using powers to block local people, Governors of schools, Headteachers and Council Committees, from doing what they think is in the best interest of their schools. The Secretary of State is a busy individual, and may not be able to go and visit and see for himself the circumstances on the ground. He rarely gets to talk the various interested parties.
There may be good reasons why a playing field should be sold. If a school is closing, and future local students are going to other local schools, there should be no objection to the sale of the playing fields if those other schools already have good provision. There should be no objection if a playing field is being sold because it has high development value, and the school concerned is picking up another local field to replace it. There should be less objection if the school selling still retains substantial land holdinsg to provide the space needed for all reasonable games use. There might be no need to object if a school is selling fields because the local authority is providing better sports facilities nearby which the school can use. Joint use facilities have a lot to recommend them, as school facilities often get closed throughout the school holidays, limiting their utility. More use of the available facilities throughout the year would be welcome.
If we get ourselves into a world where no playing field can ever be sold we run the risk of setting educational property in aspic and make improvement and development more difficult. If sports facilities are ony for the use of one particular school in term time we do not get full value out of them. I have no idea of the wisdom of the various cases where Mr Gove has allowed a playing field to be sold. I assume in each case the leaders of the school and local community thought it a good idea, which is a good start. There may well have been sensible reasons in each case. Maybe Mr Gove’s critics should wait and see more of the detail of the decisions. Or maybe they should set out some live examples, if they think they have a case where they think he has got it wrong.