Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

Critics Decry 'Scandalous' Spike in Playing-Field Sales

Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

Critics Decry 'Scandalous' Spike in Playing-Field Sales

Article excerpt

Playground sell-offs peak in August, and heads say that council funding cuts could be to blame

More SCHOOL playing-field sell-offs were approved by the government in August than in any other month this decade - and the numbers are steadily climbing, latest figures reveal.

The government gave the go-ahead for 11 sales in August - the most recent month for which figures are available. This is equal to the yearly total for 2010 and 2011, a TES analysis of Department for Education data shows.

There have already been 17 approvals in 2016, and the annual total could exceed 25 if the rest of the year reflects the numbers seen so far (see graphic, above).

Heads have warned that funding pressures within local councils could be fuelling the surge in sell-offs. But the Department for Education insists the sales are not linked to the push to build thousands of new homes and children would not miss out as a result.

Since figures were first recorded in 2010, the government has approved 138 sales.

Campaigners calling for more play space to be set aside for children and young people called the figures "scandalous".

Tim Gill, former director of the Children's Play Council and a leading commentator on childhood, said: "It's completely scandalous that at a time when you have rising childhood obesity, we're disposing of the very assets that are one of the best ways of helping with children's physical and emotional health.

"There's really clear, robust evidence that if you want to boost children's physical activity levels, you can't do any better than looking at school playing fields."

Mr Gill added that access to outdoor space plays an important role in children's mental health. "The benefits of being outdoors, under the sky and somewhere green are well researched," he said.

DfE guidance states that the first priority for reinvesting the proceeds from playing-field sales should be sports facilities.

Using the cash for "recreation or education facilities" is also acceptable, though sports should take precedence, the guidance says.

In 2012, former education secretary Michael Gove relaxed government regulations setting out the minimum outdoor space schools had to provide pupils for team games.

The merging or rebuilding of schools is one of the most commonly stated reasons for land being sold (see box, below). But in some cases, new school sites contain less playing-field space than those they have replaced, according to Malcolm Trobe, interim general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders.

He said: "There's a need to ensure that there's sufficient play space, not just for sports, but also just for general running around, particularly for younger children."

A TES investigation in 2014 found that 35 per cent of schools that had recently expanded or were due to expand would end up with less outdoor space for children.

Speaking about the latest figures, Mr Trobe warned that funding pressures could be behind the increase in sell-offs. He said: "Local authorities are under significant pressure in their funds and are having to sell off land in order to carry out building programmes."

The DfE first released detailed information on playing field sell-offs a year ago. Since then, none have been refused permission by the government; only eight have been refused in total since 2010.

The figures also show that there have been seven occasions where the advisory body had refused to grant approval and were overruled by the DfE. …

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