School field sales fuel fears about school sport

Two children running across school field School-field sales have continued despite the coalition's pledge to protect them

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The Education Secretary, Michael Gove, has approved the sale of more than 20 school sports fields in the past two years, official figures show.

The sell-off comes despite the coalition's pledge to protect school playing fields in England.

The figures are likely to fuel concerns about school sport.

A government spokeswoman said sales could only be approved "if the sports needs of schools and their neighbouring schools can continue to be met".

The figures, obtained through a freedom of information request by the Guardian newspaper, revealed that 21 out of 22 requests had been given the green light by the Department for Education (DfE) in the past two years. One more remains under consideration.

Sales pitch

Among the pitches reported as being sold off is a 1.6-acre (6,500-sq-m) site at Winchcombe primary in Newbury, Berkshire, which has outline planning permission for housing.

Others such as those at Kingsbury High School in north London are reported to be earmarked for lease to a company that operates artificial five-a-side pitches.

The DfE said that all applications to sell school playing fields were scrutinised by the independent School Playing Fields Advisory Panel and required the consent of Mr Gove.

The criteria for agreeing a sale include ensuring that there are enough remaining playing fields for local schools and communities and that sale proceeds are re-invested preferably in outdoor sport facilities - although plans to invest in indoor facilities or educational facilities are also considered.

The DfE later added that of the 21 approved for disposal, 14 were of schools that had closed, four were sites that became surplus when existing schools amalgamated, one was surplus marginal grassland on the school site and the proceeds were invested in the school library and better sports changing facilities.

The sports facilities on two more of the playing fields were improved by developers and then leased back for use by the schools and local communities.

Two years ago, the Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition agreement said the government would "support the creation of an annual Olympic-style schools sport event to encourage competitive sport in schools, and... seek to protect school playing fields".

In a statement on Monday, the Department for Education said: "Sale proceeds must be used to improve sports or education facilities and any new sports facilities must be sustainable for at least 10 years."

Start Quote

Primary schools is where it starts ... catching people young is incredibly important”

End Quote Jeremy Hunt, Culture Secretary

Also on Monday, the Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt described school sports provision as "patchy" and said that ministers wanted to boost participation in sport on the back of Team GB's Olympic success.

Speaking on BBC Breakfast, Mr Hunt said: "Primary schools is where it all starts and catching people young is incredibly important." But he accepted pupils faced "an element of luck", for example in terms of having an inspirational teacher.

"At the moment school sport provision is patchy in some places and we need to do what we can to make sure that the very best examples are spread throughout the whole country and this is absolutely going to be a focus over the next few months and one of the things we really want to take away from these Games," he said.

Mr Hunt's comments came after the British Olympic Association (BOA) called for a "step change" in sports policy.

On Friday Lord Moynihan, chairman of the BOA, called for an urgent overhaul of school sport policy.

Lord Moynihan said it was wholly unacceptable that more than 50% of medallists at the Beijing Olympics came from independent schools.

Figures from the Department for Education show 213 playing fields were approved for sale between 1999 and April 2010.

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