Campaigners called for a parliamentary inquiry yesterday into allegations that Michael Gove overruled advice not to sell off a school's playing fields in return for the local Tory council funding a controversial free school in the same borough.
An independent panel last month rejected an attempt to sell off tennis courts and other sporting facilities at the Elliott School in Putney, south-west London, following an outcry from local campaigners. But days later the Education Secretary overruled the decision, paving the way for the school to be turned into an academy and the playing fields to be turned into housing.
The GMB union, which represents school support staff, accused Mr Gove and Tory-run Wandsworth council of a "backroom stitch-up" yesterday, alleging that Mr Gove had overturned the playing fields decision at Elliott as a "quid pro quo" for Wandsworth funding a free school in nearby Battersea.
Last year, the council bought up defunct hospital land in Battersea for £13m to be converted into a free school, which will open next month as Bolingbroke Academy. Both Elliott Academy and Bolingbroke Academy are to be run by ARK Schools, a charity which has 11 academies across Britain and was founded by the millionaire financier Arpad Busson.
The GMB claimed the timing of development at both schools was suspicious. In May 2010, Elliott School was about to sign a £40m refurbishment contract under Labour's Building Schools for the Future project. But under the new coalition government, the money was axed in July 2010 by Mr Gove. In November 2010 the council and Government identified a pot of £40m to build free schools in Wandsworth borough. A year later, in November 2011, Wandsworth council announced that the only way to pay for refurbishment at Elliott School was to sell its playing fields, despite the £40m earmarked for new free schools.
On 12 July this year, the independent School Playing Fields Advisory Panel rejected plans to sell off the sporting facilities. But earlier this month, Mr Gove overruled the panel, giving the green light for the sale.
Elliott School has been at the heart of the playing fields row that erupted after David Cameron promised to protect school sport. On Friday, it emerged that the Government approved the sale of playing fields at 31 schools, despite earlier admitting to just 21. The Department for Education also confirmed reports that in five cases, independent school playing fields experts had been overruled by Mr Gove.
Paul Maloney, the regional secretary of the GMB union, said: "All the evidence points to a cynical backroom stitch-up between Gove and the Wandsworth Tories over funding the Bolingbroke free school in Battersea. It is essential that this is now investigated by either the Education Select Committee or the Public Accounts Committee.
"Parliament must investigate whether Gove agreed to allow the sale of the school playing fields in Putney as a quid pro quo for Wandsworth funding the purchase of land for the free school in Battersea."
The Labour education spokesman, Stephen Twigg, said: "Michael Gove needs to explain why he can find millions for a new free school in one part of Wandsworth but an existing school down the road is forced to sell off playing fields to fund its refurbishment."
A spokesman for the Department for Education said: "Elliott wants to enhance its academic and sporting provision. Its sporting facilities are dilapidated and out of date. The Government approved the application. The sale will fund a new multi-use games area to host competitive sports fixtures such as football matches, which they cannot currently do. They will also replace their old gym with a state-of-the-art indoor facility with four sports courts."
Bolingbroke Academy has triggered controversy as Wandsworth borough has a surplus of secondary school places.
ARK declined to comment on the GMB's allegations.
A Wandsworth council spokesman said: "The Department for Education approved the sale of the surplus land because it is the only way to fund vital refurbishment work at the school so that children and young people in the area can have the modern education and learning facilities they deserve. There is no magic pot of money to pay for these works and, without them, the school faces an uncertain future."
Best foot forward?
Defending the Olympics legacy, Michael Gove says the Government is committed to school sport. We are told he enthusiastically watched the Olympics, including attending archery, athletics and the triathlon, and is a season-ticket holder at Queen's Park Rangers, where he goes with his son. He also watched Aberdeen FC when he visited his parents recently.
But watching sport isn't the same as doing it. Does the Education Secretary actually do any exercise himself? He has "sometimes cycled to work", says a source.
That's not exactly keeping up with the Brownlee brothers, is it?