What are the facts?


There has been an inevitable debate during the Olympics over sport in schools and how we secure a lasting legacy.

Politicians never knowingly fail to jump on a passing bandwagon. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to them that this carping, sniping and whingeing detracts from the feel good factor being generated by these games, which we should  all  simply breathe in and  appreciate, while it lasts.

Ironically the unprecedented success of our Olympians has sparked much soul -searching about where the next generation of elite sportsman will come from. The Guardian aimed to portray the Government as hypocritical, praising the success of Britain’s Olympians, while undermining our future medal chances by selling off school playing fields. The newspaper reported:  “Ministers have approved proposals to sell off a London school’s playing fields, including six tennis courts and a football pitch, despite mounting criticism of the coalition’s planning for an Olympic legacy. The land at Elliott school in Putney, south London, is being sold off to pay for a major refurbishment. It brings the number of school playing field sell-offs approved by the coalition to 22. The Guardian revealed government figures on Monday which show that the sale of school sports fields continues even though ministers declared in the coalition agreement that they would seek to protect them.”  The DFE responded,  unsurprisingly, by disputing the figures. The Department says that of the 21 (not 22) playing fields the Government has approved for disposal, 14 belonged to schools that have closed, and four were part of sites that became surplus when existing schools amalgamated. Of the other three:

One was surplus marginal grassland on the school site, the sale of which allowed investment in the school library and sports changing facilities.

One was leased to a company to redevelop and improve a playing field for the school’s use that had poor drainage and was under-used. As a result of the development, the school’s playing fields now include 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 both the club and the school, although the project did not go ahead in the end.

A spokesman from the Department commented:

“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.”

So what happened under the  the last Labour government in terms of  yearly sell-offs  given the oppositions  attacks on the Coalition for recklessly selling off sports fields, so depriving our youth of sporting opportunities ? Well, here are the figures for sell-offs for each year since 1999.

1999: 42;

2000: 31;

2001: 21;

2002: 24;

2003: 16;

2004: 13;

2005: 11;

2006: 8;

2007: 19;

2008: 11;

2009: 16;

Jan 2010 to April 2010: 1;

So its pretty safe to conclude that  the last Government was not exactly blameless if you measure commitment to  school sport   by the number of   school sports fields being sold-off . They probably deserve a bronze medal, at least, in hypocrisy.(see Note)

The issue is a bit more complex and nuanced than the headlines suggest.  .

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

Anyway, getting back to the Games,  we should all feel pretty proud of what has been achieved and the  credit  for it cuts across political barriers.


No politicians are blameless on this score .It is estimated   that around  10,000  sports playing fields  were lost between 1979 and 1997.

The proportion of pupils playing competitive sports increased from 58 per cent to 78 per cent between 2006-07 and 2009-10, according to the Department for Education.



  1. I’ve found the discussions about “inspiring a generation” and how you go about it, fascinating, and profoundly revealing. If there is one thing which demonstrates why it’s so important that teaching should be de-politicised as a profession, it is this. The systematic and widespread undermining of competitive sport in state schooling which began in the seventies in the UK, was always underpinned by a political ideology to level the playing field…literally. Equity or excellence. Schools can’t pursue both.

    Oh, and for anyone seriously interested in “inspiring a generation,” a must read is James Lawson’s piece in yesterday’s Independent, about England’s footballers… and Dave Brailsford.

    • Yes I agree.Sport, helps develop fitness, endurance, leadership, resilience, application, teamwork, self-discipline and one can go on and on . The All must have prizes philosophy is a disaster. And the idea that you shield children from competition in schools works not only against the grain of human nature but also fails to prepare them for life outside schools and in the job market.. . Where the money is going to come from though to sustain the legacy in schools and through community based organisations including Youth Clubs etc is a mystery.

  2. Well said. It’s time the political parties stopped fighting with one another over who sold the most (or least) playing fields. We’ve also written about this subject and the lack of support for coordinated physical activity in schools.

  3. Worth bearing in mind though that the permissions needed to do this were “granted” within the 1988 Education Reform Act.

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