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John Rentoul

John Rentoul: Mr Cameron must choose his words more carefully

The coalition is charged with letting playing fields fall to developers, but Michael Gove is merely going where Labour went before him

The selling off of school playing fields is an urban myth, but one that is most dangerous to ministers, of whichever party. Once upon a time it was a true story, in the ancient past when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister, but no one under the age of 40 was an adult then. Under her government and John Major's, playing fields were sold off at the rate of more than 500 a year. One of New Labour's promises, which it kept, was to put a stop to this short-sighted policy, and between 1997 and 2010 an average of only 17 were sold each year.

In this respect, Michael Gove, who is the coalition government's most ardent Blairite, has been continuity rather than change. In the two years he has been Education Secretary, a further 31 playing fields have been sold. So restrictive has the policy become that last week's controversy was over a mere five cases in which Gove disagreed with the advice of an independent panel. True, Labour were more reluctant to reject the panel's advice, doing so only four times. But is it better that ministers subcontract decisions to unaccountable quangos, or that they exercise judgement?

Conor Ryan, who was David Blunkett's special adviser at the Department for Education in Labour's first term, says he came up with the idea of an independent panel, "having spent many hours poring over the applications". He thought it "made sense to involve the strongest critics in the decision-making process", so he put representatives of the National Playing Fields Association, now trendily renamed Fields in Trust, on the panel. Ryan says he sympathises with Gove, but, "by overruling the panel, however justified he may have felt he was in the individual cases, he has repoliticised a process that had effectively been depoliticised."

Well, on balance, we should prefer politics to decisions that are notionally "depoliticised", because, if politics sounds like a dirty word, try substituting "democracy" instead. As if to illustrate this point, Ryan admits that he had no idea that the panel's decisions were made in secret. "When I suggested the panel, I certainly assumed that their decisions and membership would be made public."

However, if, by seeking to "depoliticise" the subject, Ryan means that he understood the dangerous power of myth and sought to "de-controversialise" the decisions, he showed rather more sense than either Gove or the Prime Minister. It was David Cameron who set off last week's kerfuffle by declaring, during the Olympics: "It was a mistake that playing fields were sold in the past – but they are not being sold any more." He is not as careful with words as he could be. We know what he meant – that hardly any playing fields are being sold now – but what he said was that not a single square foot of turf ever touched by a plimsoll will ever change hands for money. Thus Stephen Twigg, Labour's education spokesman – who once, as Schools minister, patiently explained that, in a few cases, under some conditions, with sensible safeguards, it was OK to pour concrete over a blade of grass – could work up some synthetic outrage.

But that is politics, and what is alarming is that Cameron is sometimes not very good at it. Two days after giving the press the excuse to write about playing fields, he went on breakfast TV to free-associate about Indian dancing being something "that you and I probably wouldn't think of as sport". He was trying to explain why the Government had dropped the target for two hours a week of sport in schools, but instead of explaining that Westminster should not dictate school timetables, he managed to offend nearly everyone.

For a prime minister who was hoping for a boost from the Olympics – and our ComRes poll today suggests no such immediate benefit – such mishaps are especially embarrassing. He and Gove should have realised that, having sought to capitalise on the "legacy", their policies on school sports would be scrutinised.

As with other myths, such as that all politicians are the same, that they are in it for themselves, that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, people believe what they believe regardless of facts. So "they" are selling off school playing fields, whoever "they" are.

The power of myth is such that a prime ministerial word-fumble and a mix-up over the figures (Gove was initially told by civil servants that 21 playing fields had been sold since he took over, rather than 31) became headline disasters.

Thus Gove's success in influencing A-level exam boards to throw the grade-inflation engine into reverse went uncredited. Without direct ministerial interference, the proportion of A grades awarded at A level fell by 0.4 points, the biggest drop since the exam began. Normally, this would have provoked a big debate, with one side alleging that students' hard work was being undervalued because of a political attempt to manipulate figures, and the other welcoming a small step towards greater academic rigour.

On balance, Gove should have emerged from last week with credit. As it was, everyone is more convinced than ever that he is a scoundrel.

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