Have I gone mad?

I’m wondering if I’ve gone mad.

There’s this issue that I just can’t think about without one question occurring to me. For me, it is blindingly obvious, absolutely basic and impossible to avoid if you want to talk about the issue.

And the thing is, it doesn’t appear to have occurred to anyone else.

I’ve read plenty of media stories about the issue, and I’ve not found one that asks, answers or even obliquely mentions this blindingly obvious question.

The problem gets worse than that, however.

I’ve waded through lots of public comments on the topic too, and none of those mention the blindingly obvious question. Not even from those who usually are so very good at taking pot shots when the newspaper they love to hate gets it wrong.

But the problem is even worse than that.

I’ve taken a look at what some pressure groups have been saying on the issue. No dice; no question.

And it’s even worse than that.

Because it’s not a new issue. It’s one that has been going on for decades. Courtesy of the internet, I’ve been reading up on what has been said about the issue a few times before. No mention of the blindingly obvious question then or now.

Yet even there it doesn’t end. It gets worse still.

For there are the official press releases over the years from the government departments that have been roped into the issue at various times.

Now, what’s strange about these is that asking the blindingly obvious question would have been an easy way for those departments to head off criticism. And yet they never seem to have asked it. Nor, on being asked it by me, has their press team known the answer.

It’s just me and my lonesome belief in this question and the need to answer it. It has me mesmerised; I cannot see the issue without seeing the question.

We have politicians, media, the public, all discussing the issue over decades and never asking the blindingly obvious question. (Or if anyone has – and surely for the love of bar charts, someone has somewhere – it has been so low profile and infrequent that my searches have failed to find the cases.)

How can that be?

When you see things completely differently from the whole world, is it the whole world that has gone mad or is it you?

Oh, and what is the question? Let’s see if I can lure you into my island of sanity / insanity by leading you up to it.

Let’s start with unemployment. Imagine only talking about job losses when discussing unemployment and never, ever mentioning how many jobs have been created or what the net figure is. Only ever talking about the number of job losses and saying how awful they are.

When someone talks about job losses only and says how awful things are as a result, the blindingly obvious, absolutely basic and impossible to avoid if you want to talk about the issue is: “ah, but how many jobs have also been created?”.

It might be less than the number lost, in which case bad news. It might be more, in which it’s good news. Either way, talking about the job market and only talking about losses, never mentioning how many new jobs there are, would be daft, right?

So – take your leap with me – how come people talk about how many school playing fields have been sold off and don’t mention how many new ones have been created?

(And yes, there have been new ones: I’ve read stories about some of them, seen photos of some of them, even checked up the existence of one on satellite photography and caught a match mid-game. How many? I have no idea. Just as no-one else has.)

Here then I am left with my dilemma. For me, that question is essential. For the rest of the world, it appears not.

Either I’m mad or the rest of the world is.

You ponder that, I’m off to find solace in chocolate.

* Mark Pack is Party President and is the editor of Liberal Democrat Newswire.

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  • It doesnt fit the media story of how the coalition government is shafting schools and discouraging sport

  • Perhaps I can help Mark. The scandal is not over new playing fields, it is over current playing fields being sold off and not replaced. Oh, and Gove telling the press wrong information, he wasn’t lying, he was misinformed by an official.

    And it’s also about Gove changing the rules regarding playing fields.

    So the question of how many new playing fields they are is irrelevant.

    BTW, which satellite photos are you relying on? The ones on google predate the formation of the coalition in 2010, so it’s extremely unlikely that these represent new playing fields.

  • Hardly a fair comparison. It’s highly unlikely that an existing school will create new playing fields (unless their roll has increased significantly). New schools and amalgamated schools might, but the issue has been about existing schools (although it was probably much more of an issue a couple of decades ago). What is the net change in playing fields for existing schools?

    Also, the media talk about the net change to employment when the employment figure come out, not the number of jobs lost – unless I’ve been reading the wrong papers. When they came out the other day it was IDS that put a particular stress on the number of jobs created by the private sector. So, the government was spinning about the number of jobs created without reference to the number lost and was spinning about the triumph of the private sector. Quelle surprise.

  • paul barker 17th Aug '12 - 1:10pm

    I think the problem is the crushing sucsess of the overcrowding/overpopulation meme which took off in the 1960s. Even though rates of population growth peaked 40 years ago the meme carries on .
    In britain theres the additional & much older theme of everthing being built over which goes back at least to the 1930s.
    There cant be any new playing fields because theres no room.

  • mike cobley 17th Aug '12 - 1:14pm

    Mark, I’m guessing that the number of newly created playing fields comes in at a miserable number – a govmt minister is hardly going to trumpet that although they’ve done away with XX-hundred playing fields they’ve still created 23!! Whoo, huzzah! …. er, mebbe not.

  • It shouldn’t be simply about the losses or gains in either jobs or playing fields.

    The way to judge playing fields is by the percentage of children at school who have access to a high quality facility at least x hours per week. I have no idea what x hours is, I do however know that the last Tory Government sold the excellent sports facilities of my secondary school, it is now a Tesco store, and it has not been replaced.

    With employment it should be the total number of FTE positions filled which should be further broken down by salary.

    My rationale for the latter is simple, I am lucky in that I have have never really been out of work. I have however spent time in part time jobs and jobs with a lower salary than my qualifications would indicate. For the employment ‘health’ of the country to be known we need to understand what the mix of jobs are and what the FTE is.

  • David Allen 17th Aug '12 - 1:36pm

    Presumably, new playing fields get created when new schools are being built, on new estates on the edges of towns and cities, by conversion of agricultural land. It is then relatively easy to pay the farmer for a little more cheap land that can be used to play games upon, and yes, it provides a need.

    However, it doesn’t compensate for what happens when an inner city school, far away from such facilities, loses its playing fields for the sake of realising the much higher value of inner city land.

  • Peter Watson 17th Aug '12 - 2:17pm

    Selling off school playing fields has long been a political hot potato.
    The concern I have about proposals to remove requirements for schools to provide playing fields and simply make recommendations of what is good practice, is that it is simply intended to make it easier for free schools to find premises which would otherwise be deemed unsuitable. In a typical coalition omnishambles, the timing coincides with the government trumpeting the importance of sport in schools.

  • @Mark Pack
    IIRC, IDS was banging on about private sector job creation whilst not really saying anything about public sector job losses and the net change in overall unemployment.

    The GDP fall could be explained by the new private sector workers producing and consuming less than the fewer public sector workers they replaced, which might be related to highly skilled and experienced jobs being replaced by lower wage jobs. New employees are also less efficient as they lack experience in their role.

    As a thought experiment – we could end up getting rid of unemployment tomorrow by forcing the unemployed to work smiling at people for £10.50 a week – it would be cheaper than the current benefit system so would reduce the deficit as well as getting rid of unemployment. This is of course is ridiculous, but not quite as ridiculous as the two people that have turned up at the (empty) building site next to me equipped with a couple of shovels to tidy it up (it’s been derelict for a year since the foundations were built). I find it hard to believe the developer is paying them because (a) they don’t look particularly motivated and (b) it would be cheaper to get a contractor in with some proper equipment and do the job in a couple of hours rather than a week of labour costs, given that’s how long it’s taking the unfortunate fellows to complete the job. Hey ho, we should celebrate as unemployment is falling – it’ll soon be as low as the bronze age (or whichever age shovels were invented in).

    As others have pointed out ,we need better measures and break-downs of things.

  • Putting in all weather pitches gets counted as disposal of a playing field under the current system though. If the interest is in sports participation then surely not just playing fields but what other facilities schools have access to is important.

  • Peter Watson 17th Aug '12 - 3:23pm

    @Mark Pack
    All politicians quote statistics selectively to suit their message.
    Quelle surprise!
    Nett changes, relative changes, real-terms changes, … most figures can be spun to suit a particular point of view.
    Whether it’s school playing fields, jobs, cuts, health spending, composition of the coalition agreement, opinion polling, etc. it’s all the same.

  • For you to take so much of an interest in this question, Mark, bearing in mind your build up to it in the article, I assume you must think it is a “real” issue. Certainly, for most of those here (and I include myself among them) it is not. Any new fields will, as explained above, generally be for new schools, or new facilities. If a direct like for like replacement has been made, presumably figures have been offset? If they haven’t, I agree, something is wrong. But, again, bearing in mind the history of the issue, you can bet your bottom dollar that even if there was a simple minded Minister in charge at the time, there would have been a Sir Humphrey ready to throw any plausible arguments in!

    The whole idea of “net” change, by the way, is probably irrelevant – if several schools individually have lost more provision than they have school population, there is a problem, irrespective of what fields have been created elsewhere!

    Your post has provoked many more real and useful issues and questions in the comments, so I suppose it has served a purpose.

  • The real irony to me is Moynihan casting himself as the protector of school sports facilities when, as a minister, he presided over so many disposals (see latest Private Eye)

    On jobs, isn’t it about time we started talking about the numbers in FTE terms. A new supermarket could create 000s of 4 hr shift jobs. If playing fields should be measured in sq km (and let’s not ignore grassed areas converted to all weather surfaces) then jobs should definitely not be double or treble counted based on PT hours

  • David from Ealing 17th Aug '12 - 6:15pm

    There’s also the point that many of the sports in the Olympics don’t actually require playing fields.

  • Keith Browning 17th Aug '12 - 6:33pm

    David from Ealing – they dont always need playing fields but an Olympic size boating lake in the playground built especially for the occasion wouldn’t go amiss – Boris and David’s boys win again and again and again and again and again.

  • Yellow Bill 17th Aug '12 - 7:19pm

    @Mark Pack

    It would be very easy to find out. Contact those schools who have had their paying fields sold off and ask them if they were replaced LIKE FOR LIKE.

    Here, start with this one


  • This sort of stuff ought to be up to schools, not Mr Gove. I hope he allows every school who wants to sell off a field to do so.

  • paul barker 17th Aug '12 - 8:20pm

    This has got me thinking about my daughters schooling, now I think about it neither of the schools she went to had any playing fields, thats fairly normal in london I suppose.

    On the extension of this topic to jobs, it always annoys me that a big fuss is made about people in part-time jobs who would rather be working full-time but theres no attempt to even find out about people in full-time jobs who would rather work part-time. The question isnt asked because “real” jobs are full-time.
    This week we have seen similar attempts to dismiss self-employed workers as not doing “real” jobs.

  • Peter Watson 17th Aug '12 - 9:20pm

    @Mark Pack
    “What about all the non-politicians I’ve mentioned in the post who also have done the same thing?”
    Everybody quotes figures to suit themselves. At least twice a week the Daily Express will (badly) report on some medical study about the latest thing that will kill us or cure us.
    “Lies, damned lies and statistics” is a quote with which I’m sure we’re all familiar. I recommend Ben Goldacre’s ‘Bad Science’ book and blog to anyone interested in this.
    Even I’m not immune to a bit of this. If I’ve just treated myself to a new gadget the figure that I’ll be emphasising to my wife is how much I’ve saved 😉
    Sometimes such quoting is unintentional: bad reporting leads to a misunderstood “fact” being repeated without checking the source. The oft-mentioned “75% of our manifesto in the coalition agreement” is one example.
    I think that your article takes an interesting approach, highlighting the fact that often gains and losses are reported without considering the net change. But even then, the nett figure is not always the best measure: an economy in which 200,000 jobs are created and lost is quite different fromone in which none are. There are other factors as well that can obscure meaning. In the context of selling-off playing fields, whether it’s 20 or 30, and whether there were good reasons or not, if there are 20000 schools is that a significant quanitity?

  • Yellow Bill 17th Aug '12 - 9:58pm

    Mark Pack
    No, it doesn’t tell us the total of school playing fields – but there being playing fields in Eton doesn’t help the school children of Elliott School who are in danger of losing their facilities. Or Ashmount School in Leicestershire.

    Of course, not all playing fields go to build houses. Kingsbury HIgh School is leasing its playing fields to a company who are turning them into 5 aside pitches, denying its children of other sports (that is IF they get to use the 5 a side pitches)

    Is this a good thing? I suppose it is a matter of conscience.

  • Damn it, Keith Browning beat me to mentioning the half million quid of taxpayers money that was given to the charitable foundation for impoverished school-kids, Eton College, so they can play at boating (and charge other people for using the facilities).

  • One of the key concerns was that Gove has repeatedly overruled his committee’s recommendations – which presumably did take into account replacement playing fields or if the school has sufficient fields.

  • Peter Watson 17th Aug '12 - 11:56pm

    We shouldn’t kid ourselves that school playing fields are suddenly a huge issue of national importance: selling 30 pales into insignificance compared to the thousands quoted for the Thatcher/Major years. It is just another opportunity to embarrass Cameron who has an uncanny knack for making up policy on the hoof in a press statement and then falling foul of the omnishambles.
    Cameron attempts to cash in on the good PR of the Olympics and says competitive school sports is vital. Oops, he’s reminded of Gove’s scrapping of Labour’s school sports partnership, and it turns out Gove has been selling off school playing fields, ignoring independent advice and not even keeping count.
    Cameron distances his new approach from Labour’s by criticising Indian dancing. Lo and behold some Indian dancers pop up in the Olympics closing ceremony to perform a wonderful, energetic routine.
    You have to laugh, or else you’d cry.

  • In answer to your question: yes, you appear to have gone mad.

    You seem to be suffering from a delusion that a field is categorically identical to a job.

    To help set you back on the path to sanity try repeating to yourself that a field is static and defined by its particular location and is therefore unaffected by the presence or absence of other fields. For such an entity to be designated a school playing field it must satisfy the further condition that it be adjacent to a school. It is therefore a nearly unique singular entity, it can only be ‘nearly’ because another field could replace it if it were also adjacent to the same school. As such it numbers 1. The loss of 31 of them is the loss of 31 1’s.

    The reason that nobody else states the situation as a total is hopefully because they realise that it would be misleading to do so.

  • I have no idea how many school playing fields have been sold off. None near from the looks of things.
    But I do think state Schools occupy a weird position ins a press dominated by the London weighted and the public school educated. You would think that all schools were hell holes roamed by corpulent street gangs doing David Beckham studies or something.

  • Mark,

    Your example has illustrated my point clearly. Your initial piece argued that the relevant numbers for full understanding of the situation would be that there were 10 school playing fields now there are 16 . This is obviously insufficient data. It could just as easily mean that a single school had opened with 16 fields to itself whilst the other schools had all remained open but had sold theirs. If that were the case then the selling of playing fields in 10 schools would be an independently relevant fact regardless of the 16 fields opened by the single school, which would similarly be an independently relevant fact. These two facts, whilst impacting on the sum of how many school fields we can count, are otherwise not informative for anything relevant at all.

  • Liberal Eye 18th Aug '12 - 5:20pm

    With all this focus on playing fields are we perhaps missing a larger issue?


  • Mark,

    Fair enough you didn’t say sufficient. The main thrust of my point still applies though; the full numbers are not relevant. The loss of 31 playing fields raises 31 sets of questions, many overlapping but each case needs each question answering. There is not a single question begged by the fact that 31 playing fields have been lost to which the answer is that others have been created.

    Lets say that in your quest for solace you had a nice big bar of chocolate waiting for you. When you get to the cupboard it has gone. You would ask certain questions about it. Others would enquire about your wellbeing given that you have to go without the requisite solace. How might you regard my sanity (to go along with your initial question) if i were to say that your enquiries are all impossible without a prior understanding that I have since acquired two mini eggs and therefore the total number of chocolaty delights now stands at two. Double the number we started with.

  • Mad? I couldn’t say.

    Confused? definitely, just like the rest of us.

    A couple of different analytic approaches are getting conflated and mixed up, firstly there’s the net vs gross numbers, then there the general tendency vs specific need. Beyond which there’s the deeper ideological and pragmatic questions about the role and ability of the state.

    One thing is for certain, the number of Gold medals won by Team GB is not reflective of the health, fitness and ability of the population, nor is there any way of proving this.

    Whatever, one Mo Farah, or Jen Ennis, is not worth any hundred of premature deaths from bad diet and bad exercise. And any number of playing fields does not provide sufficient facilities for elite athletic performance.

    What about pools, gymnasiums and everything else? What about equipment? What about participation levels and the standard of competition?

    Why the focus on school playing fields – which are often poorly maintained, and blocked off or restricted – instead of greater emphasis toward public parkland and organised clubs?

    In my experience schools do a bad job of engagement, fitness and technique training – how many champions emerge from the school system rather than the network of club leagues?

    Frankly speaking the debate about school playing fields is mired in the 19th-century amateur mindset. It is irrelevant. If every child cycled or walked to school there’d be no need or call for classes in physical exercise, and fewer adults would find it an unpleasurable activity.

  • Peter Watson 19th Aug '12 - 6:31pm

    You make a lot of good points here.
    My view is that the tory emphasis on competitive sports in primary schools is completely wrong.
    If the goal is to improve the health and well-being of the population – and I think it should be – then participation is key, not the creation of winners and losers. If Indian dancing gets the whole class moving and enjoying themselves, then brilliant. And dancers within a group will learn as much about the importance of teams as footballers: more perhaps, as footballers will learn not to pass to the slow fat kid.
    Playing fields are about a fairly narrow range of activities, and should not be seen as a surrogate measure of the health and fitness of our schoolchildren.

  • Keith Browning 19th Aug '12 - 6:42pm

    The gold medal tally certainly obscures the true situation.

    We did well in cycling, rowing, sailing and riding – notice they are all sitting down sports and only one of them truly available to the common man and woman..!!

    In the two ‘major’ Olympic sports of swimming and athletics we were, at best mediocre. Most of the swimmers were way below their best and the number who swam a personal best was embarrassingly small.

    Athletics was triumphed as a great success but the truth is very different. Again the number of personal bests was way below what you might expect from athletes who had spent years preparing, whilst many underperformed – a la the swimmers.

    The sports authorities tried to manufacture medals by importing several ‘plastic Brits’ – athletes with a known pedigree that had previously competed for another country – mainly the USA. This failed spectacularly as ALL failed to deliver even an average performance.

    Jess Ennis deserves 11/10 for her efforts under the most extreme and unfair media pressure but our other Team GB superstar, Mo, needs a little more circumspection. Somali born, he spent all his formative athletic years in England but didn’t reach greatness until he moved to the USA to live and train, some two years ago.. I’m not too sure that has much to do with playing fields or anything else.

    I suggest political decisions about PE in schools are going to be made on newspaper headlines – not on the real facts about what went on for 17 days in Stratford.

  • “We did well in cycling, rowing, sailing and riding – notice they are all sitting down sports and only one of them truly available to the common man and woman..!!”

    There are sailing and rowing clubs within half an hours drive of my house which appear (according to their websites) to welcome new members.

    That’s a bit harsh on Mo Farah as it’s fairly clear that he was first talent spotted and encouraged by his school teacher and wasn’t doing to bad before he went to to Salazaar. In any case the idea of “not really a truly British success as he had a foreign coach” has elements of Chariots of Fire about it 🙂

  • mostlly we did very welll in posh peoples sports, is th truth of it.

  • Tim Leunig said:

    “This sort of stuff ought to be up to schools, not Mr Gove. I hope he allows every school who wants to sell off a field to do so.”

    I couldn’t agree less. This is a standard Tory recipe for asset stripping, in which the asset holder is forced to do their own stripping. It allows a cynical government to create a bogus “miracle” by cutting school budgets to the bone, and forcing them to sell off assets simply to survive, while handing the ill-gotten gains to the voters in tax cuts, and boasting about the wonderfulness of Tory policies.

    Labour, bless them, always used to be big enough patsies to knuckle down uncomplainingly and put taxes back up again, so that they could spend money rebuilding public assets that had been raided by the previous generation of Tory pirates. Nowadays they can’t be relied upon to do that, because they hate being vilified for tax raising.

  • Richard Dean 20th Aug '12 - 3:57pm

    There is no boundary between mad and not mad. There are only comparative degrees.

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