22 Feb Unleashing the Potential of School Sports Facilities
Many new schools built in the last 10 years have excellent sport facilities, yet despite the best efforts of the UK’s Sports Council’s, community use remains patchy. In England 77% of sports halls and 61% of artificial grass pitches are located on school, college and university sites, yet it is estimated that 38% do not have community use arrangements in place. Many would agree that facilities lying idle when people want to use them is a waste of a valuable asset. The investment in the school and higher education estate dwarfs that spent on dedicated sport and physical activity projects, therefore it is vital schools compliment other facility provision, to help realise the universal aim of a more active nation.
There are three main reasons for the current state of play. Firstly, sport and physical activity professionals are still not being included in planning and design teams, resulting in poorly specified sports facilities. Secondly, schools are often managing community programmes, but may lack the necessary skills and experience to maximise use. Thirdly, many schools operating under private finance schemes – are locked into long-term operating contracts on inflexible terms which penalise the opening up of schools outside core hours.
Surely now is the time for the government to take a mandatory approach. Schools should be designated as community assets not just educational establishments – with community use ‘designed in’. Councils should also consider alternative management arrangements to maximise opportunities from the school estate. The Facilities Inquiry report (2010) recommended ‘schools must be obliged to open their premises for out-of-hours school sport’. Little has changed in the intervening six years to diminish the relevance of this key proposal.
The £4.4 billion Priority School Building Programme in England and new build programmes in the rest of the UK represent a fantastic opportunity to supercharge the sport facilities infrastructure, to review and improve contract management arrangements and remove physical barriers to participation.