It is a familiar tale: desperate schools forced to sell fields for funds. But, says Phil Revell, the facts tell a different story
Save our sports fields. It is a campaign that has produced outraged headlines and government action in recent years.
The overwhelming impression is of irresponsible schools selling precious assets and condemning children to a couch-potato future devoid of competitive sport.
"The statistics are appalling. It seems that nothing is being done to stem the loss," says Elsa Davies, chief executive of the National Playing Fields Association, and one of the most vocal campaigners.
But the facts do not support that claim. Government figures show that in the past four years approval to sell or change the use of a school field has been granted in 118 cases. But 48 of these were at closed or closing schools and a further 45 helped fund better sports facilities.
Over a similar period there has actually been a net gain in facilities.
Sport England (formerly the Sports Council) has used lottery cash to help create 322 new grass surfaces and a further 155 artificial surfaces. No fewer than 522 pitches have been improved.
Nevertheless, Sport England chairman Patrick Carter echoes Elsa Davies'
pessimism. "We object in nine out of ten cases," he told The TES this month ("Country needs competition", TES, March 14).
"There are factors beyond our control which means that the sell-off continues."
But, to the sports body's embarrassment, his figures were inaccurate. "We don't know where they came from," admits a Sport England spokesman. In fact, the organisation objects to a third of playing fields applications, and, despite its lack of statutory powers, succeeds in blocking 55 per cent of these. With unintended irony, given their chairman's gaffe, the spokesman said that Sport England "would like less misinformation spread about how these decisions are reached".
Some of that misinformation appears to come from the National Playing Fields Association. Founded in 1925, the NPFA is a charity supported by politicians, including ex-sports minister Kate Hoey, and by many celebrities. Its current newsletter lists "playing fields under threat". Of the 21 fields named, 13 are on school sites.
But a TES investigation this week reveals the list is out-of-date and inaccurate. Named schools were "amazed" to be on it. One had withdrawn its planning application, another was building an extension that included outdoor play space.
High up the list is Wiltshire's Allington school, which closed in 1997. The 9.5-acre site has been sold and is being developed. But the community is gaining a GP's surgery and 2.2 acres of affordable housing, plus pound;100,000 worth of newly developed playing fields.
Yorkshire's Withernsea high school was also listed. Yet the school has 33 acres of recreational space. A proposed Sure Start centre will be built on a rectangle of grass the school never used. "It's less than 2 per cent of our site," says Withernsea headteacher Martin Green.
These mistakes were made because the NPFA made no effort to contact the schools before it published their names. "We don't have time to contact individual schools," said Elsa Davies. She also admitted that the NPFA defines a playing field as "any part of the school grounds", whether it has ever been used for sport or recreation or not.
In reality, the tabloid hysteria about school field sell-offs seems to have little factual backing. After that, the most common planning requests from schools are for enhanced sporting facilities; all-weather pitches, sports halls and floodlit arenas. It is hardly surprising that Sport England waves most of these through.
The sports organisation is concerned at unnecessary sell-offs in the private sector, and around public-private partnerships, where developers promise to provide alternative sports facilities at some future date.
But Education Secretary Charles Clarke thinks the problem is managed well by the independent group that monitors planning applications (see box).
Speaking at last week's sports colleges' conference in Shropshire, Mr Clarke said: "I think that it's fair enough for schools ... to use their assets to improve the quality of sports provision."
THE PLAYING FIELDS OF ENGLAND
Changes in the law and guidance on school fields:
* 1980: the Government introduces legislation that encourages local authorities to rationalise their assets. Many local authorities subsequently sell fields to developers for housing and business.
* 1991: new planning guidance suggests that playing fields should be protected. l 1996: the English Sports Council (now called Sport England) is given the power to comment on all playing fields planning applications.
* 2001: the Department for Education launches updated guidance.
Applications for the sale of school playing fields now to be considered by an independent advisory committee, including Sport England, the DfES, the National Association of Head Teachers - and the National Playing Fields Association.
In Scotland, broadly similar arrangements apply, but Welsh authorities argue that existing planning safeguards are sufficient and there are no plans to adopt the English policy.