Bleak sites that alienate pupils

Child disaffection and the dire state of school grounds are not unrelated say researchers. Al Constantine and Neil Levis look at their findings.

Consider the plight of Year 7s as they turn up for their first day at secondary school. From the security of the primary environment - generally small and familiar - they are thrown into the anonymous world of subject teaching and big playgrounds, where there is nothing to do and nowhere to hide. In such a climate, some schools take drastic steps to make young pupils feel safer.

"We use the tennis courts at lunchtime for Year 7s because they're pretty apprehensive," says the head of one secondary school. "In here, they can be a little happier and play with people of their own age - pity there's nothing for them to play with."

The head in question is one of many quoted in a new report* on the condition of school grounds, which aims to give policy-makers a new perspective on disaffection among secondary pupils and suggests that school premises have a deeply negative impact on the morale, attitude and behaviour of young people.

The report, commissioned by educational charity Learning Through Landscapes, follows an earlier study of primaries that revealed the benefits of teaching outdoors, but the latest report has found that grounds-related problems are much worse in the secondary phase.

"The majority of schools' grounds are bleak and featureless places that have a profoundly negative influence on attitudes and behaviour," says Merrick Denton-Thompson, county landscape architect for Hampshire and a trustee of the charity.

"The primary cause of sterility of open spaces in our secondary schools is neglect: neglect in design and maintenance, neglect in meeting the needs of young people and in the way we involve them in decisions about their own environment."

The research indicates that pupils' dissatisfaction stems chiefly from the the fact that in most cases school grounds:

* fail to promote a feeling of well-being and relaxation * are not conducive to social interaction * do not include fun and play as part of their culture * fail to reflect their own cultural values and aspirations * do not meet their needs for challenge and risk-taking * reinforce pupils' feelings of not being trusted Many young people are thus becoming "insiders", researchers found, and see being outdoors as increasingly unacceptable. Pupils also complained that their scool grounds did not meet basic needs, such as sitting, shelter, or a place to eat or meet with friends in "the civilised comfort of a natural environment".

Pupils frequently interpreted such neglect as a basic lack of respect for their status and role in school and as a fundamental devaluation of their rights as citizens. In the few cases where schools had developed good use of their grounds, there were higher levels of trust and ownership among pupils as well as stronger and more positive staff-pupil relationships.

"We are substantially failing our young people by not meeting their need and expectation for a civilised secondary school grounds environment that respects their role as stakeholders in society," concludes an executive summary of the report.

The research also found that schools have been discouraged from making better use of their grounds for teaching because:

* they lack facilities

* teachers do not feel properly trained to cope

* teachers are concerned about criticism from other staff

* staff think that pupils will be unable to cope with the freedom

* the timetable is inflexible

* the weather is unreliable

The role of the headteacher is crucial if full use is to be made of school sites, it suggests, but they need guidance on how to bring about the necessary changes.

Schools that improved their grounds found that this encouraged pupils to remain on-site during lunchtimes because they felt their social needs were met.

Where schools shared their site with the community, there were difficulties in overcoming abuse of the grounds, it found, while the overall appearance of decline in many cases tended to affect the standing of the school within its larger community.

In schools where community sports centres are being built, the facilities may benefit the larger community, it says, though not necessarily the pupils if the school cannot afford the extra staff needed to supervise them during lunchtimes.

Ken Davies, director of Learning Through Landscapes, said: "We feel that an important outcome would be for the Government to acknowledge the full educational potential ofsecondary school groundsalongside their sporting value. This would signify to all involved the value that the Government puts on this national asset."

* Grounds for Concern is available from Learning Through Landscapes. Tel: 01962 846258,e-mail:

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