Hove vs Gove: Education Secretary Michael Gove accused of ignoring local wishes with plans to build new free school on playing fields

A plan to build an academy on school playing fields in East Sussex has residents,  teachers and even the local Tory MP up in arms. So has  the education secretary  finally bitten off more than he can chew?

Michael Gove, as Education Secretary, has picked his fair share of fights. From Jamie Oliver to the National Union of Teachers, the Information Commissioner to the schoolchildren of Tottenham in north London, opponents of the Secretary of State for Education have variously described him as “arrogant”, “belligerent” and a “real life villain”.

Now he has a new nemesis: the city of Brighton and Hove. A Department for Education (DfE) plan to concrete over playing fields to make way for a new free school has residents, teachers and even a local Conservative MP up in arms. Under the banner of “Hove vs Gove”, a group of campaigners has vowed to save their “village green” – known as Bhasvic Field – and has accused Mr Gove of once again riding roughshod over a community’s wishes in pursuit of his free schools policy.

“We have already had three offers for people to climb the trees and refuse to be moved,” says Lou McCurdy, who leads the Friends of the Field community group. “All I’d say to him is: don’t underestimate us, Mr Gove.”

The saga began in September when Mr Gove declared his approval for a new free school in Brighton and Hove: the King’s Church of England School, set up by the Russell Education Trust, which is sympathetic to Mr Gove’s focus on traditional subjects in schools.

Consultants from the centrally funded Education Funding Agency (EFA) were brought in to look for appropriate sites for the school, which would cater for 1,050 students aged 11 to 18. After “a thorough search over nine months”, they came up with their solution two weeks ago: to build the new school on playing fields already used by four existing schools and described as a “village green” by nearby residents.

“We were shocked and outraged,” said Dr James Kilmartin, the acting headteacher of Cardinal Newman School, which owns part of the playing field, on a site shared with Brighton, Hove and Sussex Sixth Form College (Bhasvic) and Stanford Junior and Infants Schools. “There was no consultation. We use that field every day – for cricket, rounders, athletics, football. Nobody locally was consulted. The powers of national government under the Education Act (2011) are immense and we find ourselves having to resist them.”

Last week, the four schools issued a joint statement warning that the plan would leave them unable to deliver their sports curriculum and would “permanently remove a vital green space in the heart of a densely populated city”.

Civic leaders of all stripes have spoken out against the plan – creating yet another headache for Mr Gove’s department, which is fresh from a clash with the Information Commissioner, Christopher Graham, over its reluctance to make public information on the groups setting up free schools. The DfE is also embroiled in bitter rows with communities in Croydon, in south London, and Brent, in north-west London, over plans to turn schools into academies against the wishes of many parents and staff.

The DfE, not Brighton and Hove  City Council, will have the final say on the location of the King’s Church of England Free School.

“It undermines the role of local councils if they aren’t able to make  decisions on things like this,” said Caroline Lucas, the Green MP for Brighton Pavilion. “The idea that this Government can preach localism, then rule that they can come here and commandeer a piece of land against the wishes of the local community is just wrong.”

Anger at Mr Gove and the DfE is running so high that even the Conservative MP Mike Weatherley, whose Hove and Portslade constituency includes the playing fields site, has decided to take on the Education Secretary, highlighting that the plan flies in the face of the Government’s responsibility for the Olympic Games legacy and preserving playing fields.

“It’s a green space of which there are precious few in Brighton and Hove,” he said. Although claiming that the Green-led council had not done enough to find alternatives because of its “ideological opposition” to free schools, he said he wanted to be told the full extent of the site surveys undertaken by the DfE.

“If they haven’t looked at all the possibilities, I want to make sure they do more,” he said. “It might mean I’m against the DfE – if I am, so be it.”

Officials at the DfE have sought to play down fears that the new school would destroy one of the community’s last remaining green spaces, pointing out that it would take up just 3.6 acres of a 22-acre site, and claiming that the amount of “open space” remaining would be “equal to around 17 full-sized football pitches”. They said any final decision would be made in “consultation with the community and the agreement of the council”.

However, locals are dubious. Councillor Ruth Buckley, of the Green  Party group on Brighton and Hove City Council, queried the Government’s figures, and said the main school field locals were trying to save was only five acres.

School leaders also fear that the impact of placing another school so close to three others will lead to serious overcrowding in the area. The EFA is also considering plans for a three-form primary school on the site for an extra 630 children. “There are 2,000 pupils at Bhasvic and 2,200 here at Cardinal Newman’s,” said Dr Kilmartin. “Now they are talking about 1,600 or 1,800 more – that’s the best part of 6,000 students in a very small space.”

For his part, Steve Flavin, the headteacher of the new free school, was as surprised as anyone with the EFA’s decision– but is hoping that the plan can go ahead amicably. “We didn’t know in advance that the EFA had identified this site, presumably in close liaison with the local authority,” he said. “No one at King’s or within its sponsor, the Russell Education Trust, was involved in this choice of permanent site.”

The school will open at a temporary site in Portslade Old Village, with its first intake of 125 year seven pupils arriving in September, and the school is expecting to remain there for the next three years, before a possible move to the Bhasvic Field site.

Heads at the four schools say they are not opposed to the idea of a new school in the area. “We have no objection whatsoever to the free school,” said Dr Kilmartin. “It’s just that they want to build it on our school playing field.”

Schools of hard knocks  the minister versus...

... East Durham

The Education Secretary won no friends in the North-east when he said: “There is a real problem of ambition in certain traditional communities, like East Durham, which needs to change.

“It is the case that there’s no choice, the local council has been one party for many years and when you go into those schools you can smell the sense of defeatism.” The local MP, Phil Wilson, called it an “outrageous statement”.

... Sandwell

Mr Gove apologised for a “terrible mistake” over the “clumsy” announcement that nine schools in the West Midlands borough had won funding for a rebuilding programme, only to be told a day later that the information was wrong and none would get any money after all. The council was one of six to later win a High Court battle over the cancelled funds, which was judged to be an “abuse of power”.

... Haringey

Attacking parents and headteachers opposed to schools being taken out of local authority control to become academies, Mr Gove described them as “ideologues happy with failure”.

He singled out the  London borough of Haringey, where the Downhills Primary School in Tottenham eventually lost a High Court battle to resist conversion, despite parents opposing the plan and saying they felt “ignored, ridiculed,  and insulted”.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap
videoThe political parody genius duo strike again with new video
Sport
Steven Fletcher scores the second goal for Scotland
cricketBut they have to bounce back to beat Gibraltar in Euro 2016 qualifier
News
news
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Evans is the favourite to replace Jeremy Clarkson on Top Gear
TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Imperial College London: Safety Training Administrator

£25,880 – £28,610 per annum: Imperial College London: Imperial College London ...

University College London: Client Platform Support Officer

£26,976 - £31,614 per annum: University College London: UCL Information Servic...

Guru Careers: Instructional Designer / e-Learning Designer

£30 - 32k (DOE): Guru Careers: We are seeking an Instructional / e-Learning De...

Recruitment Genius: Schools Education & Careers Executive

£30500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Schools Education & Careers Executive ...

Day In a Page

Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

How to make your own Easter egg

Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

Cricket World Cup 2015

Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing