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Rain stops play

Now that you can play all day on the latest artificial playing surfaces, quagmires are history. Mike Levy explains how schools can make money by investing in plastic.

Are muddy boots and clay-caked kit a thing of the past? They could be if schools dig up their sodden grass sports fields and install artificial turf pitches. The benefits to schools seem obvious - year-round sports fixtures and a potential source of income in renting out the pitches to the local community. They don't come cheap: you can pay up to pound;600,000 per pitch, and there is a bewildering range available.

So how do you choose? "There are a huge number of types of artificial pitches," says Chris Trickey, chief executive of the Sports and Play Contractors' Association. The newest generation, he says, is about to revolutionise the football world.

"In the past, the traditional sand-filled surfaces had a poor reputation among serious soccer players. But the newest types have larger fibres and rubber infills", says Trickey. Artificial pitches are clearly popular with funding bodies. Sport England Lottery Fund, for example, has contributed more than pound;44 million towards more than 100 projects, many on school sites, since it was established in 1994.

Why is the organisation so keen? "We don't see them as a substitute for grass pitches," says a Sport England spokesman, "but as a very effective complement. The real benefit is durability. A turf pitch of even the highest quality, with the best maintenance, should not be used for more than four hours a week."

Most school pitches fall well below this standard - hence the sticky quagmire that passes for many of our sports areas in autumn and winter. An artificial pitch can, in theory, be used 24 hours a day without harming it or increasing the cost - other than replacing the surface after an average of 5 to 10 years, depending on the sports played. Artificial pitches enhance the turf variety by freeing them from excessive use, particularly for training.

Another reason why Sport England is so pro-artificial pitches is that because more hours are available, more people can play more sport with more choice about what time suits their needs. "ATPs offer a reliable, even surface and unlike grass, which requires more specialist knowledge and regular cutting, seeding and draining, they are easy to maintain," says the Sport England spokesman.

"ATPs allow for a wider range of sports to be played on one surface, so are therefore more attractive ."

The Football Foundation (part of the Football Association) is another big funder keen on promoting artificial pitches in schools. Lord Pendry, its chairman, says: "Recent technological advances in the production of multi-use games areas mean that artificial surfaces now offer the benefits of all-year use, whatever the weatherI Our figures show that these pitches are increasingly becoming the preferred option for many schools, educational establishments and clubs throughout the country, and we expect their usage to rapidly multiply over the next few years."

It's not hard to find enthusiastic adherents of artificials pitches in schools. "Our astroturf hockey pitch is a godsend," says Elspeth Lewis, assistant head at West Monmouth college. "Our girls find it much more enjoyable to play on and they have had lots of successes on it - and you get the bonus of much cleaner lessons."

Steve Playford, assistant headteacher of Priestnall School in Stockport, is another keen advocate. His school had an artificial grass pitch installed by a local company, FieldTech. "It's incredible - and students just want to play on it," he says. "We play all year and it's given a real boost to our out-of-school activities."

Mr Playford points to a typical day in a cold January when 180 youngsters stayed behind for sport. The pitch cost the school pound;150,000 but it was built on an existing shale pitch.

Ian Croft, FieldTech's finance director, says: "Costs vary, depending on size of pitch, how much work we have to do to prepare the site and the type of product - whether sand or water-based for example."

He says that a top-of-the-range, sand-filled pitch with floodlights will cost around pound;300,000 and this will give at least 15 years' use.

Priestnall School has to pay around pound;4,000 a year in maintenance costs but, according to Mr Playford, it is an important source of income. "We let it out at night to local community groups and will certainly cover our maintenance costs."

The future for artificial pitches certainly looks bright - and Chris Trickey certainly thinks so. "Fifa (the international football body) and Uefa (its European equivalant) are taking them very seriously and I can see the 2010 World Cup being played on artificial grass," he says.

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