Running into problems

8th October 2004 at 01:00
Greater physical activity is being encouraged as part of a national health drive, but many sports fields have been sold for development. Roddy Mackenzie reports on the predicament of providing adequate facilities

As both the Government and the Scottish Executive seek to make children more active, there are concerns whether there is the quantity of sports facilities to accommodate increased activity.

The National Playing Fields Association is the only national organisation concerned to protect, acquire and improve sports fields and school playgrounds, for which there is no statutory protection. It calculates that, on average, one pitch a day is lost permanently to commercial development.

In Scotland there is particular concern about the number of open areas and pitches that have been sold in recent years for building projects and a year ago the association launched NPFA Scotland to raise awareness of land heritage and its commitment to protect recreation areas.

Peter Peacock, the Education Minister, outlined this summer the Scottish Executive's commitment to a minimum of two hours a week of physical education for all primary children, as called for in the national strategy Sport 21. This clearly means there will be an increased demand on sports facilities, but Ewan Gillies, honorary adviser to NPFA Scotland, fears that while much of the talk has been on investing in people and increasing the number of sports co-ordinators, not much has been said on funds available to build or improve facilities to cater for the increased demand.

"The facilities for sport in primary schools are woefully inadequate, even in terms of access to facilities close at hand," he says. "Indoor halls are often too small for sport and many primary schools have tarmac playgrounds.

It's a huge issue.

"The Scottish Executive is committed to a policy of more physical activity in primary schools as part of health concerns but where is the increased activity going to take place? If facilities are to be improved at school level then the sensible thing would be to make them available to the community."

The alternative is to take children to local leisure centres on a regular basis, Mr Gillies says, but the economics would need to be looked at closely. He argues that transporting children regularly over a number of years could work out more expensive in the long term than improving facilities on-site.

Mr Gillies is hopeful that in the not-too-distant future every secondary school in Scotland will own at least one all-weather pitch.

"If the areas of playing fields are being reduced by developments then the NPFA would like to see increased effectiveness of use by putting in a full-sized synthetic grass pitch at every secondary school," he says. "It would mean the facility was available whatever the weather.

"One of the issues when I was at school - at Forfar Academy - was that if you played on pitches outdoors during a PE period, then you had to shower the mud away before you started your next class. This ate into the PE period. If there was a synthetic pitch, pupils could get away with towelling down before their next class.

"A synthetic pitch would also take away from the wear and tear on any grass pitches on site."

While it is difficult to get an exact measure of how much recreational land has been lost for development, Mr Gillies argues that any estimate would be an underestimate. Accounts do not record any sale of land of less than 0.4 hectare, which is the equivalent of half a football pitch, three tennis courts or a bowling green.

However, there have been instances where schools have sold land and improved their sports facilities by ploughing the money into them. Dalziel High in Motherwell is a shining example, says Mr Gillies, even if the sports facilities are some three miles from the school. While there used to be a large number of pitches and an ash athletics track, most were substandard. Some of the land was sold for housing and the money raised was used to redevelop the sports facilities, which are now second to none and have wide community use.

The multimillion-pound development is seen as the benchmark for other schools but few have access to as much land as Dalziel High had. The way forward is greater use of sports facilities by the community to avoid them lying unused out of school hours.

SportScotland has produced guidelines and recommendations for primary and secondary schools to help meet the increase in demand for facilities, and guidance on designing school sports facilities to assist local authorities, emphasising that they should not only cater to the PE curriculum but also be capable of supporting use by the wider community.

Alastair Dempster, chairman of SportScotland, estimates that the pressing need for indoor sports halls would be halved if the wider community could gain access to schools' sports facilities during evenings, weekends and school holidays. "We want sport to be more widely available to all, sporting talent to be recognised and nurtured and world class performances achieved and sustained," he says. "Providing good quality accessible sports facilities for everyone is the bedrock of achieving this."

Design Guidance for School Sports Facilities, pound;30, SportScotland, Caledonia House, South Gyle, Edinburgh EH12 9DQ. Contact Shauna MarshThe NPFA also produces advice booklets; Scotland, Waterside House, 46 The Shore, Edinburgh EH6 6QU

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