Playing Fields - The Story Behind the Headlines

Posted: Fri, 17 Aug 2012 11:23

We know that so much policy is decided in response to daily news headlines. So in the last few days the Olympic Legacy story has switched to School Playing Fields and now we await the response from politicians.

But we exist at the Sport Think Tank to get behind the headlines and to provide policy makers with access to the best evidence and facts before rushing onto the airwaves or creating the next headline. School Playing Field sales/disposals are full of myth and it's an issue in serious need of greater depth of analysis.

The story has taken extra legs today in the Telegraph after it was revealed that 30 Playing Fields - not the original 21 quoted - had indeed been sold off in the last 2 years. This followed the stories generated by the Guardian earlier this week that discovered there were plans to relax guidelines on school requirements for school playing fields.

It may be worth starting with this excellent article by Alan White in the New Statesman - "Olympic Legacy is too diverse to work under a single political ideology"

In this article Alan shows why it is a bit too simplistic to take the headline figures at face value. In particular the 10,000 school playing fields sold under the Tories between 1979-97 was always a rather convenient figure. There was no doubt there were massive numbers of playing fields sold off but nobody really knows how many.

There were improvements when the government introduced legislation in 1998 and updated this in 2004 when it wasn't working as well as expected. But as White says and fairly makes the point there is a lot of hot air being created around the debate again.

"Labour did improve things. As I type this I see Andy Burnham MP (of whom more in a second) is tweeting about the 1998 Act that slowed school sales, and which was updated in 2004.

The sale of school fields is now governed by this strict Labour legislation, which says that the sports needs of schools must continue to be met, there must be clear evidence all other sources of funding have been exhausted, and the money must be reinvested in sport. Now if Gove's somehow got round these guidelines and allowed the sale of fields that are genuinely needed, let's give him a kicking. Believe me, I'll be first in the queue, wearing my Tory-arse-seeking winkle pickers. But the Guardian story gives no evidence for this – and wouldn't we have heard more from the communities involved?"

The complexity of this can be seen by the story in the Guardian in 2005 in which the then Sports Minister Dick Caborn was able to announce a net gain in the number of playing fields. I remember putting out press releases off the back of this great 'news.' But as ever nothing is quite as it seems in this statistical v planning world.

A quick look at the various figures released of course reveals that of course despite the 1998/ 2004 revised legislation sales were still going ahead as can be seen in the FoI from the DfE here.

The number of approvals in previous years is as follows:

1999: 42

2000: 31

2001: 21

2002: 24

2003: 16

2004: 13

2005: 11

2006: 8

2007: 19

2008: 11

2009: 16

Since May 2010: 21

It may be uncomfortable for some - but there will never be a time when there are no sales. Schools will close and things do change. After all there are 16,500 primary schools and 3500 secondary schools. Their local circumstances will change over time and some will even close and move. I supported the loss of an unused bit of grass at a local college when it was replaced by some flats and a floodlit 3G pitch and changing facilities which I now see being used 7 days a week. Sometimes it is a trade off - replacing a bit of muddy unused field with a much better sports facility.

So putting it mildly this is a very complex policy area which requires some flexibility in our approach. The 'policies' exist to protect School Playing Fields and a small number will be sold each year for a variety of local reasons. We shouldn't go over the top with these when they are.

However, if the statement from the Sport & Recreation Alliance today is right the problem has been that those policies and procedures have been overlooked. Now that is a story worth looking at in more detail.

We will do some more research into the existing data that is widely available and collate the various sources of articles and materials to add to this site as a resource.

Tags: school playing fields, gove, PE


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