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”.

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