Far from surrending their spare acres unthinkingly, Phil Revell finds schools making shrewd use of their assets.
Promises broken, headlines in the tabloids and ministers who say one thing and apparently do another. There does seem to be an awful lot of fuss about the nation's sports fields. If the Daily Mail is to be believed, every school field is at risk from greedy developers, incompetent local planners and myopic heads, happy to see top-class sports facilities bulldozed and replaced by supermarkets.
But reality is a little distant from the headlines. At Calday Grange Grammar School, on the Wirral, what's happening doesn't sound like the concrete desert anticipated by the press.
"We're having a synthetic pitch, a pavilion so that the children can change on site, and a top-quality cricket field, which we will share with a local club," says headteacher, Nigel Briers, who is delighted with the deal the school has negotiated.
"There will be tree-planting, a meadow and pond development and we're getting rid of some old demountable classrooms."
It is a far cry from the four acres of muddy field that the school windows once overlooked.
The school sold the land for housing, making pound;2 million on the deal, then bought 10 acres of land close to the school and poured pound;750,000 into developing it as a community facility. With the loose change, the school has handed back pound;500,000 to the local authority and the girls grammar school in the area will also get new sports facilities.
At the Crawshaw School in Pudsey, existing facilities restrict what can be done in PE. Crawshaw is one school, but has two sets of buildings.
"There's a 140-metre gap between the two sets of buildings. We have two of everything, but everything is too small," says headteacher, Giles Elliott.
In 1988, the school faced closure with falling rolls and poor performance at GCSE, but last year there were l,200 children crammed in, with more on the waiting list. Top-grade GCSEs were 43 per cent and rising and a start had been made on the buildings with pound;750,000 spent on science facilities.
"Our sports facilities are a major stumbling block," says Elliott. "We have poor indoor facilities, a poorly drained red-gra (all-weather) surface and some sloping land, which is unsuitable for most uses."
The school would like to sell three acres of its fields and use the money to build a modern all-weather pitch and a community sports hall. But strict criteria have to be met.
The rules say that:
* Proceeds from the sale must be invested in sport or education * The remaining facilities must meet the school's needs and those of the local community * Local opinion must be taken into account.
Bids are assessed by a variety of sports bodies and by the Department for Education ad Employment. It is not a speedy process.
At Crawshaw, Giles Eliott started the ball rolling eight years ago and he has still to see his cherished sports facilities.
"We've had clearance and there's been a successful lottery bid. But local planning permission has still to be granted."
A small but vociferous group of local residents is fighting the proposals, thus delaying the process. Elliott is loath to comment on this, but he has support from sports organisations, councillors and the local MP.
Ministers claim that spurious developments are being turned down and that the majority of school land sold went towards direct investment inschool facilities.
What is clear is that the Government's restrictions on field sales are just one hurdle schools have to jump over to realise their assets. Giles Elliott retires soon, but has pledged to assist the new head at Crawshaw to see the project through.
"It's been nine years," he says."I'm not giving up on this."
* Monks Park Secondary School, Bristol
The proceeds from selling surplus playing fields are being used to fund completion of a new sports hall and floodlit all-weather pitch that will be open to the community as well as other schools.
Priory Community School North Somerset Poorly drained playing fields were sold to pay for new pitches next to the school, a floodlit all-weather pitch and other improvements to sports facilities.
* Newmarket Upper School, Suffolk
The lease of two small areas of playing fields to Forest Heath District Council will enable a larger, two-stage sports project to take place. They will provide a community-use swimming pool and an all-weather pitch as well as renovating the existing community playing fields and providing a new sports pavilion.
* Wyke Regis CE VC Junior School Weymouth
The school's unusable playing field will be swapped with an area of allotment land that is flatter. The allotments will be laid out on the existing school land. The cost of converting the allotments to a playing field will be borne by the county council and Weymouth and Portland Borough Council. The borough council will also pay for the provision of the new allotments on the existing school area.
* Beacon Community College Crowborough
The sale of rough ground unsuitable for sport will pay for an all-weather pitch; two new sports halls; table-tennis and rock-climbing centres with modern changing and toilet facilities. The college will retain over 110,000 square metres of grass playing fields - equivalent to about 13 full-size football pitches.
* The Forest School Horsham
A playing field will be sold off to pay for a three-court, floodlit, all-weather, multi-use games area for use by the school and neighbouring Queen Elizabeth II Silver Jubilee special school and to provide the latter with a sensory garden giving access to the new multi-use games area.