Gove ‘ignored independent advice’ to back playing field sell-offs

Ministers have been left red-faced after it emerged the government had got its figures wrong on the number of playing fields sold off under the coalition.

The Department for Education (DfE) had claimed that only 21 school playing fields had been disposed of since the general election, but last night it confirmed that the correct number was in fact 30.

Education secretary Michael Gove intervened to allow the sale of playing fields on five occasions – overruling the advice of independent experts in the process.

"Michael Gove must now come clean and explain what appears to be a secret programme to sell off school playing fields," shadow education secretary Stephen Twigg said.

"From the abolition of Labour's school building programme, to curriculum changes, Michael Gove has form when it comes to ignoring expert advice."

The DfE said its original set of figures had been the result of a mistake by officials, for which Gove has apologised. Requests received by the previous government had been omitted, it explained.

Concerns remain about the education secretary's decision to ignore the school playing fields advisory panel's advice five times, however.

One member of the panel told the Telegraph, which broke the story: "To have set up a panel of acknowledged sector leaders and then ignore their knowledge and experience is regrettable."

The newspaper's investigation revealed that there were 35 applications to sell school playing fields between May 18th 2010 and July 22nd 2012, of which 30 were approved, two rejected and one withdrawn. Two remain outstanding.

Labour has written to the DfE's permanent secretary, Chris Wormald, demanding to know why around a third of playing field sell-offs had not been disclosed.

It has asked the department to publish all submissions and correspondence regarding the disposals.

"The established process of approval means that most decisions are taken by junior ministers," a spokesperson said.

"Each decision was made by a minister after careful consideration of the arguments. Ministers have sought to ensure that proceeds go to improving sports facilities for young people overall. We are, of course, happy to publish the reasons for each decision."