Opinion: Why schools should be allowed to sell their playing fields

As the Olympic Games concluded, the debate on school sports has risen to the fore. The Prime Minister, it seems, is a big fan of competitive sport being played in primary schools. This, he says, will lead to a real Olympic legacy.

Since the Prime Minister started outlining his plans, the government has come under pressure to defend the sales of school playing fields – a robust defence of the 21 sell-offs was put forward by the Department for Education. Then it became 30. The media – and the Daily Telegraph in particular – has launched campaigns to save school playing fields.

But why does there need to be such a defence? Why can’t government and schools make a decision to sell their fields for profit and pump money into other areas of schooling, and why must school deliver all of this competitive sport?

My secondary school –BournemouthSchool– lost part of its playing field for a new private leisure centre. Some lottery funding was involved in the project, too – but in return for losing some of our field we had access to modern and extensive indoor facilities. This enabled physical education lessons to take place in bad weather and gave us a new all-weather pitch and some more modern tennis courts. The selling off of part of the playing field actually led to better provision for sport at school. The hard courts also allowed for football at lunch breaks, keeping us all active for another hour a day. No doubt the Telegraph was outraged.

The move to more competitive sport is also concerning. Many friends of mine were quite happy to kick a ball around leisurely, but being forced onto the rugby field to compete against those boys, such as myself, who were keen, put many of them right off the idea of playing any sport. They’d do whatever they could to avoid it.

We should be encouraging more sports clubs to engage with schools to give kids more options outside of school. I would have loved the opportunity to play more cricket regularly, but unless you were in the school team you never got any coaching.

I remember once getting a telling off from a PE teacher for picking up an injury playing Sunday football – he didn’t seem to approve of kids playing sport outside school. He thought his PE lessons were more important. It confused me then, aged 12. Now I am convinced he was just plain wrong. By having more links between schools and sports clubs, those who want to play more competitive sport can have the opportunity to do so.

We should stop being aghast every time we learn of school playing field sell-offs. We need community spaces for people of all ages to play sport, but it doesn’t always have to be at school – and in some cases the sell-offs can have a benefit for school sport. School P.E. should be an inclusive lesson, not one where those with less natural talent lose out.

We should allow schools to sell to the highest bidder if they want to, but we should make sure that before they do our children and communities are going to get a better deal. In many cases, they can.

* Matt is a former Chair of the Cardiff & Vale Liberal Democrats and was the party's candidate for Cardiff North at the 2017 General Election.

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  • Tom Snowdon 23rd Aug '12 - 9:53am

    What you describe is fine Matt, as long as the school playing field is replaced with a community sports facility. It makes a lot of sense that the whole community can use the facilities, and that they are fully used evenings and weekends. I’m concerned though, that land would be sold off for other uses “to the highest bidder”, and the local community as well as the pupils would be net losers. These sell offs need to be closely monitored.

  • So Matt

    Because your school had its sports facilities enhanced by the partial selloff of its sports fields, you can equate it to those many schools that lose all of its sporting facilities and gain not a jot (apart from getting their buildings repaired).

    Personally I find your point facile

  • Matt Hemsley 24th Aug '12 - 11:02am

    Tom – You are right, it does need to be closely monitored. School guardians need to be on top of the reasons why, and there must be strong links to community sports clubs. Also if the fields were a true public space not just private fields it would be a different issue altogether.

    I would have loved the chance to play more competitive sport (cricket especially) as a kid, but there was never really the opportunity at school, having those stronger links would have been great. But we should want all our kids to be active, and that means inclusive PE.

    This will always be a tricky one – but I just think by automatically being in ‘uproar’ when we learn of sell-offs, we need to look more closely at why and the benefits. Some might well be a disgrace, but others could be for the best.

  • Jonathan Hunt 28th Aug '12 - 10:01pm

    If the playing fields belonged to those few staff and governors holding power at any one time, who found an easy and lazy way round temporary financial challenghes , that would be just about OK.

    But they don’t. They belong to pupils now at school and many millions to use them in the future in the future. As Mark Twain said about land, “they have stopped making it”.

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