Places apart?

Key landholdings effectively divorced from their surroundings?

Sites of containment and control?

Not perhaps the conventional way to describe school grounds, but perhaps useful imagery to jolt us out of assumptions which, in the UK at least, seem so embedded and habitual that we cease to see what is before our eyes and within our daily experience.

I want to speak about school grounds – also called school playgrounds – and the way, in the UK at least, these landholdings are effectively sequestered sites, their backs turned to the local community and neighbourhood their boundaries marked by fence, wall and bolted gate. Although appearing on maps, our internalised local mental geographies effectively blank-out school grounds classifying them as prohibited or semi-prohibited places, achieving by ourselves what state-instructed cartographers achieve when they omit sensitive military sites from everyday maps: the erasure of place.

Schools control, and limit the use of, their ‘own’ grounds. It is surprising that this does not strike us as distinctly odd. It is perhaps especially odd given that our more densely packed urban areas are gasping for more shared, communal space, green or otherwise. LB Tower Hamlets springs to mind as an example. But there are any number of other areas that share the characteristic of too little, easily accessible, local open space for use by all.

Before continuing, let me quickly dispose of a point that I’m sure will be raised. Many schools do allow, even encourage, occasional use of their school grounds by the wider community: sport days; local community fairs; perhaps leased out to local clubs and so forth. But this has nothing to do with free and easy access by local people, of all ages. Quite the contrary, these and similar events are school controlled. Permissions need to be sought, bureaucratic processes engaged with, and any number of considerations taken into account before use of the grounds can be granted – or not. All this merely confirms that school grounds are places apart, out of the control of the communities within which they are located.

It should not be like this. It need not be like this. Travel to other countries and the situation is radically different. During a recent trip to Sweden I visited schools where it was hard to see where the boundary between school grounds and the wider environment lay. Boundaries there are permeable – devoid of the defensive enclosures that form the perimeter of too many UK schools.

In the USA, where I aim to be again shortly, school grounds are often understood as a community resource – not simply a school one. There, school grounds can in principle be used in a more park-like way. This is not in practice achieved as often or as well as many would like. But, in many places, the formal presumptions about who owns, who decides about, and who may use school grounds, are secured – they are in principle a community resource, to be used by the school, and the wider community.

A short anecdote: I was once in discussion with a local authority about what sort of facilities a new local park should offer. The park land ran adjacent to a new housing development. A ball court facility was proposed. ‘But look’, I said, pointing to a ball court a few yards away, ‘you have one just there’. No, came the answer, that is in the school grounds, not for general public use, secured behind fence and locked gate. So a new and additional ball court was built within – pardon the expression – spitting distance of the school. This surely represents a massive misuse of public resources.

Primary schools in particular tend to serve very local areas, and are already – at the start and at the end of the school day – places of congregation and informal sociability by parents. But the parents are generally restricted to clustering by the school gate; or perhaps are allowed limited, time-controlled access to the playground to collect their children. Imagine the effect on local life if the school grounds were open for general use at the end of the school day.

School grounds are effectively out of use, certainly by local people, for the substantial holiday periods, weekends, and after school hours. Were we to be starting from scratch, it is very difficult to believe that we would want to withdraw from general public use that limited and precious resource: land.

The points I raise in this brief piece are about the ethos and systemic faults in the management and reach of the education estate. It is not about blaming individual schools. I acknowledge, too, that even where schools want to open up their school grounds for more general use, even in the restricted way I mention above, the difficulties can be immense: PFI arrangements can limit the scope of action; insurance issues can be a nightmare; and the duty of the school to ensure its facilities are fit for use by pupils during the school day has to be, for the school, paramount. That is why, if there is to be any significant movement on this issue, it has to start with redefining who is responsible for school grounds. It is probably not the school. In fact, what has been said here implies that school grounds need to be reclassified away from being, singularly, ‘school grounds’. Rather, school land holdings need to be defined as ‘neighbourhood land’ available, of course, for school use but not restricted to it.

I end with assertions and look forward to the possibility of agreement – and challenge. School grounds:

  • should be democratic spaces used and enjoyed easily and freely by the communities within which they sit
  • should not be in the sole control of schools – though their right to use them must be secured.

There will of course be many practical issues to resolve. But radical change cannot be secured by first immersing oneself in practical detail. The initial step is to establish a new principle, one that runs counter to our accumulated and unquestioned habits of thought and practice.

That principle is that school grounds must be an integral part of local, shared, democratic public space. Securing such a principle, and putting it into practice, will have wide-reaching benefits for local communities, for their health and well-being, for their sense of attachment and control of their neighbourhoods, for the schools themselves.