"When it's gone, it's gone": Why do schools keep selling off their playing fields?

Austerity has created new funding pressures for schools, which are having to leverage the one asset they still have left: land.

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Civil war has returned to Devizes. Nine hundred years ago this Wiltshire market town was the base from which the Empress Matilda, daughter of Henry I, launched an insurrection against her cousin King Stephen in a battle for succession. Now, the pupils of the local academy are up in arms about plans to sell off 5.7 acres of the school's playing fields to housing developers.

"The fields are used by everyone really often, for football, athletics and other things," 15-year-old Gracie Greenwood told the Wiltshire Gazette and Herald in December. "The plans would see back gardens [of houses] bordering our netball court which would make a lot of people feel vulnerable. We all feel very uncomfortable about the situation."

Since 2017, Devizes School has been owned by a multi-academy trust called the White Horse Federation, which operates 32 schools in and around Wiltshire.

"Their story is they discover the school needs a significant amount spent on repairs to premises," says Andy Geddes, a town councillor and former mayor of Devizes who lives near to the school. "Our local press have referred to it as asset-stripping."

But Nicholas Capstick, director of the White Horse Federation, insists that "every penny that is made from the sale of this land will be reallocated back to the school". He says that he receives £1.5m from the government annually for capital investment in all of his 32 schools.

Devizes School, with its 18th-century grade II-listed buildings, has already gobbled up £1m of that – and there's still work to be done. 

That argument doesn't cut the mustard with locals, who point to the fact that Devizes School is a sports college, whose facilities constitute its core asset.

"Curiously enough, another of their [the White Horse Federation's] schools in the town of Wroughton near Swindon – they are currently doing the same thing there," says Geddes of the plans to sell land. "Inevitably, there is suspicion that rather than a reluctant response to an unforeseen emergency, it's more of a management strategy to raise funding by selling off assets." Capstick denies that this is the case.

[See also: Crumbling Britain: How English schools are paying the price for austerity]

Unlike much public land, there are government protections to stop the sale of school playing fields. Headteachers are obliged to send planning applications off to the Department for Education, with the education secretary personally approving each individual case. Nevertheless, according to figures released last year by the footballers' union GMB Footballers United, 215 playing fields have been sold off since 2010. In 2017 alone, 49 applications were approved.

"We are required by law to make best use of our assets," says Capstick. "We would be remiss if we were not exploring possibilities."

The sale of school playing fields is an emotive topic. In 2008, then Conservative shadow education secretary Michael Gove criticised the legacy of New Labour, saying, "It is ironic that the government is selling off school playing fields on the eve of a campaign to get children to lead more active lives. The planning rules need to be changed to make it easier to set up schools and use them for education and recreation."

And yet four years later, as education secretary, it was Gove who overruled the independent Schools Playing Fields Advisory Panel five times in 15 months, giving the go-ahead to a series of controversial projects. A Telegraph study showed that the proportion of children doing two hours of sport a week fell from 90 to 43 per cent after his department's decision to drop this compulsory requirement. 

Given the context of recent years, the White Horse Federation's arguments are strong. According to pressure group Stop School Cuts, 83 per cent of schools have less funding than they did in 2015. Despite a national increase in the number of pupils, there are 3,500 fewer teachers than there were five years ago. When the money dries up from central government, how else are schools expected to pay for their upkeep except by leveraging their assets?

And naturally, some schools have better sports facilities than others. Inner cities cannot compete with the space of rural areas. Since Devizes School is relatively well-endowed, it seems reasonable to suggest that it parts with a £2m portion of its playing fields. "We have other schools that have no playing fields whatsoever for 700 kids," says Capstick.

But, like a game of Monopoly, the problem comes back to a fundamental negotiation between immediate funding pressures and the fact that there is no asset quite like land.

"It's short-sighted," says Geddes, himself an experienced planning officer. "When it's gone, it's gone."

Fortunately for Geddes, it would seem that there are people in very high places who share his thinking. "We don't believe in selling off playing fields and I think if you look at what we do in London, we have very clear rules that you can't sell off green space, you can't sell off playing fields," said the former mayor of London Boris Johnson in 2012, as he sternly endorsed a minimum of two hours recreation a day for schoolchildren. "Playing fields are absolutely vital for the health and wellbeing of young Londoners." 

The question is, will the Prime Minister maintain the same stance now that he occupies the highest office in the land, and the London Olympics are a distant memory?

George Grylls is the winner of the Anthony Howard Award 2019.

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