August 8, 2012 • 3:15 pm

“School playing school fields: 21 sell-offs have been approved by coalition.”

“Michael Gove agreed sales despite pledge to protect pitches”

The Guardian, 6 August 2012, also in Independent, Telegraph, Express, Mail and BBC.

It is far from controversial to suggest that sport remains flavour of the month across the country but when the Olympics comes to a close on Sunday evening, attention will turn to the legacy of the Games and the future of sport within the UK.

In fact, this issue has already received wide media coverage this week with multiple papers reporting that the Government has authorised the sale of 21 school playing fields since coming to power in May 2010.

In its various guises, this story has ignited fears that the Government is not doing enough to promote the long term sustainability of British sport and that the remarkable success of Team GB may never be replicated.

Full Fact decided to have a more detailed look at the figures to see if the situation really was so dire.

Analysis

The source of the claim can be traced back to a freedom of information request to the Department for Education on the disposal of school playing fields.

This information was released by the DfE on Tuesday stating:

“The Department has received 22 applications since May 2010 for the disposal of school playing fields. Approval has been given for 21 applications and one is under consideration.”

If today’s Guardian is to be believed, the last of the 22 (Elliott School in Putney) has also been approved.

Nevertheless, as is so often the case, the headline figures do not tell the whole story.

Scratching below the surface

In fact, what the headline figures do not reveal are the circumstances surrounding the sale of each field.

These are, however, revealed in a bit more detail in the DfE’s press release and, to be fair, in some (although not all) of the media reports.

According to the DfE:

“Of the 21 playing fields we approved for disposal 14 were schools that had closed, four were sites that became surplus when existing schools amalgamated. Of the other three:

  • One was surplus marginal grassland on the school site. Proceeds of the sale were invested in the school library development and sports changing facilities.
  • One was leased to a company to redevelop and improve a playing field (for the school’s use) that was subject to poor drainage and under used. Funding introduced all-weather playing surfaces comprising of four 5-a-side pitches, two 7-a-side pitches, a full sized football and hockey pitch and a six-court indoor tennis facility. The school also profited from private hire of facilities outside school hours.
  • One was due to be leased to an Athletics Club to improve sporting provision for the Club and the school, although in this case the project did not go ahead.”

We also learn that:

“We will only agree to the sale of school playing fields if the sports and curriculum needs of schools and their neighbouring schools can continue to be met. Sale proceeds must be used to improve sports or education facilities and any new sports facilities must be sustainable for at least 10 years.”

Quite clearly the DfE tells a rather different story to the headlines and standfirsts we have seen this week.

It would seem that, although school fields have undoubtedly been sold, the impact on sport is rather limited. It could even be argued that, in some cases, sporting opportunities have actually increased with money freed up from redundant land to be invested elsewhere.

We do not necessarily, however, have all the relevant information. For example, in the case of school closures and mergers, it is reasonable to assume that scarce sports resources would have to be shared more widely, thereby raising the possibility of reduced standards per student.

That said, politicshome.com are among those to release a summary on each individual case. This informed us that, in cases of school closure, the money raised was always invested in sport, often exclusively. As such, although we cannot say for certain that school closure would not undermine sport, it is the closure itself that would be the source of the problem; not the sale of school field specifically.

We were unable to find the press release in question so contacted the DfE who confirmed that they had sent additional background information to a number of media outlets. They have since sent us a copy of the table published on politicshome.com so we can also confirm that it is reliable. 

Conclusions

While it is true that 21 (and seemingly 22) school sports fields have been closed since May 2010, not all of the news reports made adequately clear the finer detail behind the closures. 

The DfE confirm that, in 14 cases, the school itself had also closed, and in additional cases the playing fields were removed after they became surplus to requirement. This isn’t to say necessarily that overall facilities per student have improved, but in fairness to the DfE they provide explanations for each of the closures along with evidence of redevelpoment of other sports facilties to make up for the lost ground.

So it seems that school sports field closures are unlikely to be the big threat to the UK’s Olympics legacy they were made out to be by some this week. At least, not those that have closed so far.

Image: Mosmon Council

Update 16 August

We have since been sent details of the DfE’s response to the original FOI request it would seem that Elliott School’s application was submitted after the FOI response was sent out and is therefore not included in the 22 applications referred to by the DfE. Instead, the ‘last of the 22′ is Michael Drayton School in Hampshire LA.

This means that, as far as we know, the DfE has now approved the sale of 22 school fields (including Elliott School) with one application pending – i.e. Michael Drayton.    

Update 17 August

According to the Daily Telegraph, the DfE released the wrong figures on the number of school fields sold since May 2010.

The paper reports that the DfE considered 35 applications and approved 30 sales.

Full Fact has contacted the DfE to ask if they could verify the claim and were told that the Department was currently investigating where the numbers were coming from and that they would update us when they had a more definitive answer.   

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