In 1979, Margaret Thatcher became the first female prime minister, a portly George Best was playing for Hibs and Sony released its iconic and eye-wateringly expensive portable cassette player, the Walkman.
It was also in 1979 that regulations on school premises in Scotland were last updated, having first been published in 1967. Now, they are being refreshed.
While issues such as gender-neutral toilets are gathering support, one area is proving contentious: the size of outdoor play areas.
Back in the 1970s, outdoor areas generally equated to grass playing fields. Now, however, synthetic pitches are ubiquitous – and this is where things get controversial.
The argument has been made by the Scottish government – which last week published a report summarising consultation responses to its plans – that, where schools have synthetic outdoor areas, the minimum permitted area will in some cases be less than if they had only grass pitches.
The argument is that as well as physical area, “capacity” depends on how often a surface is likely to be useable – and that in Scotland’s inclement climate, synthetic surfaces will be used far more often than grass pitches.
'A valuable resource'
A host of organisations has not accepted that argument, such as teaching unions, outdoor learning specialists, local authorities – albeit a minority of those to have expressed an opinion – and the British Medical Association (BMA).
The BMA says: “We do not believe that the area required for playing fields should be reduced, even in specific circumstances. The BMA believes that school playing fields are a valuable resource for pupils and the wider community and as such the area reserved for them should be maintained.”
While most councils that responded back the changes, Aberdeenshire Council sees “no case for reducing the area required if there is a synthetic surface”.
It states: “Yes, these [synthetic] surfaces are more durable so [are] less likely to be out of service after bad winter weather, but the space required to deliver the curriculum is dictated by the number of classes and timetabling, not the type of surface. Also, a single synthetic surface will not be suitable for all sports – you cannot play hockey on a carpet designed for rugby, and vice versa.”
Dave McGinty, the EIS teaching union’s national officer for employment relations and health and safety, argues that outdoor facilities should be improving at a time when the Scottish government is encouraging active lifestyles. “It would be a retrograde step to take advantage of the development of synthetic pitches to reduce available space and save on costs,” he says.
Mike Corbett, an executive member of the NASUWT Scotland teaching union, says teachers at new primary schools have expressed concern about poor sports facilities under current regulations. At a time when there is much investment in early education, he adds, proposals for smaller outdoor areas at primary schools seem “even more bizarre”.
NASUWT Scotland says that even large primaries would “barely have a single football pitch” if only grass is used – and less than half a pitch if only synthetic materials are used. The union says the changes “appear to be aimed at cutting costs rather than improving provision”.
There are also concerns that the proposals focus too much on sport – and on physical health rather than mental health. A Scottish Natural Heritage submission states: “What about people who do not enjoy sport? There should be regulations that support the provision of spaces around schools that encourage other types of physical activity.”
Outdoor-learning organisation Grounds for Learning says that a “narrower focus on a sport-focused agenda” would lead to “diminished” outdoor learning.
Fields in Trust, an organisation for protecting outdoor spaces, says that Scotland’s minimum required dimensions for school outdoor areas fall short of those in England and Wales. Its submission also opposes the practice of allowing certain schools to provide a smaller than usual outdoor space, if it can show that children will instead be taken to a nearby park – because “that rarely happens”.
A Scottish government spokeswoman says: “There was no proposal to change the current regulations on grass-only pitches. The consultation reflected the increasing use of synthetic pitches by schools, which have greater playing capacity compared to a grass pitch – so provision would at least remain the same, if not increase.
“We welcome the responses received on the consultation. An independent analysis of the responses has been carried out and we will issue a response in due course.”