Exclusive: Councils to sell hundreds of acres of school playing field land

TES investigation reveals areas with high obesity levels are shedding huge amounts of land

Charlotte Santry

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The amount of school playing field land earmarked for sell-off has increased dramatically to a seven-year high, a TES investigation reveals.

Information from 65 local authorities shows that they sought permission to sell or transfer 160 acres of school playing fields last year – more than double the amount set aside the previous year.

This is the most playing field land marked for sell-off in a single year during the seven years for which data is available.

Almost half of the land was in three local authority areas – Knowsley, Kent and Barnsley – all of which have higher than average levels of overweight and obese children of Reception age.

The TES investigation also shows that school playing-field sales since 2010 – including those for which Department for Education approval was not required – have already raised more than £100 million for the 65 councils that responded to TES Freedom of Information requests.

The same authorities asked the DfE for permission to dispose of 684 acres of school playing field land – equal to 456 professional football pitches – the analysis reveals.

Tim Gill, a former director of the Children’s Play Council who advised David Cameron on childhood when he was leader of the opposition, said: “Despite promises from successive governments, hundreds of acres of playing fields are being sold off, leaving children deprived of space for sport and play.

“With rising pupil numbers and growing concerns about ‘generation inactive’, it’s time for ministers to accept that the system protecting these vital assets just isn’t working.”

TES revealed last October that there had been a surge in the number of requests from councils hoping to dispose of land, according to data for the first half of 2016. The DfE stressed that the requests related to a “tiny” proportion of school sites. But the latest TES findings show that they still cover a large amount of land, worth significant sums of money to councils.

The first priority for reinvesting the proceeds from playing-field sales should be sports facilities, according to DfE guidance. However, the latest investigation showed that playing fields are not always replaced with outdoor space, and that money is sometimes used to subsidise other parts of the curriculum. 

Malcolm Trobe, interim general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said the land may well be needed in future by areas seeing a growth in pupil numbers. Ideally, schools and councils “wouldn’t be in a position where they needed to raise money from selling off playing fields”, he added.

In 2012, Michael Gove – then education secretary – relaxed government regulations setting out the minimum outdoor space schools had to provide for pupils for team games.

A Department for Education spokesman said: “These figures represent a tiny proportion of the total playing field land across the country, and consent to sell has only been granted where schools have clearly demonstrated there is no impact on their sports curriculum.”

Kent County Council said that all of its sold fields were attached to schools that were already closed and that the money had allowed the council to invest in modern facilities.

Councillor Alan Gardiner, Barnsley Council’s spokesman for corporate services, said the local authority had invested over £1 billion in new school sites, replacing all of itsvsecondary schools. Physical activity continued to be one of the council’s priorities, he added.

Knowsley Council also said that tackling childhood obesity was a priority, and that it had “rationalised” its school estate in line with a reduction in pupil numbers. Any sales since 2010 related to obsolete sites, the council said.

This is an edited version of an article in the 17 February edition of TES. Subscribers can read the full article here. To subscribe, click here. This week's TES magazine is available at all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can ;click here.

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Charlotte Santry

Charlotte Santry

Charlotte Santry is deputy news editor at Tes

Find me on Twitter @CharlotteSantry

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