Game over: councils to sell more school playing fields

17th February 2017 at 00:00
Unions have expressed concern that land is being sold off at a time when pupil numbers are rising
TES investigation reveals major disposal in areas with high obesity levels

The amount of school playing field land being earmarked for sell-offs has increased dramatically, 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 they set aside the previous year.

This is the most playing field land marked for sell-off in a single year during the six-year period for which figures are 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 nearly 700 acres of school playing field land – equal to 456 professional football pitches – the analysis reveals.

A good proportion of this land is in areas that have real child obesity problems

In making judgements on whether to permit sales, the DfE is bound by its own guidance stating that there is a “very strong policy presumption against the disposal of school playing field land”.

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.

“And what’s worse is that a good proportion is in areas that have real child obesity problems.

“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.”

‘Valuable’ land

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, and suggest that the annual area marked for disposal has increased dramatically since 2010.


Malcolm Trobe, interim general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “Some parts of the country may be selling off land that seems surplus, but if you have significant growth in pupil numbers, you may well need that land going forward.”

Ideally, schools and councils “wouldn’t be in a position where they needed to raise money from selling off playing fields”, he added.

The 65 authorities have applied for a total of 684 acres to be sold off since 2010. In addition, another 753 acres of school land is currently identified by the same authorities as being “surplus” – meaning it could potentially be sold off in future.

Many councils said that some of the land came from schools that had closed or were being merged. However, campaigners argue that new schools do not always provide playgrounds of an equivalent size to the sites they replace.

This is a lot of space being taken away when we have a rise in school-age children

Juno Hollyhock, executive director of charity Learning Through Landscapes, said: “This is a lot of space being taken away when we have a rise in school-age children across the country.”

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.

Technical guidance issued in 2014 states that all-weather pitches can be “counted twice” when calculating whether a school has met guidance on the minimum amount of outdoor space required.

Ms Hollyhock said this meant that “as long as a school can evidence that they can deliver the curriculum, then they could replace a playing field with a half-sized [all-weather pitch]”.

Mr Trobe said there was a logic to this if all-weather pitches could be used for more months of the year than water-logged fields.

But he added: “If you take that to its extreme and reduce the amount of leisure space [overall], that’s counter-productive.”


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