Grounds for concern: the peculiar status of school grounds

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.

9 responses to “Grounds for concern: the peculiar status of school grounds

  1. Pingback: Play, anxiety, moral learning, and a certain fragrance | Bernard Spiegal

  2. Thank you, Bernard, for beginning to unpack this all important topic. And lets not forget that beyond play, the benefits to the school and school curriculum of community use can be enormous. Imagine, for example, a farmer’s market on school grounds once a week, with its wealth of color, form and nutritional options, not to mention conversation and conviviality. Sue Humphries famously offered grazing space on her school grounds at Coombes to a gypsy for his horse for a few days each spring, with the proviso that every child have the opportunity to tour the caravan and learn about his way of life.
    Letting the outside world (including the natural world) in to the segregated grounds is an idea as profound as letting the children out, and logically leads to greater support of the educational enterprise from the community at large. We have designed middle school grounds that weave jogging trails and gathering spaces in and around the athletic fields, provide habitat, shade and shelter using native trees and shrubs, to be used on weekends by families, joggers, and birdwatchers.


  3. Hi Bernard, excellent piece, long overdue.

    Please could you extend it to include the issue of academies, AFAIK, they are both outside local authority control and owners of the school grounds.

    The public land of the school has been ‘privatised’, as it were, and the academies are free to sell it at huge profit, depriving the community of an asset, and giving the local authority no return on the many years of maintenance carried out by the local authority,paid for by taxpayers and council tax payers.


  4. Thanks, first, to all for comments made thus far. The current position on school grounds is, ‘.. totally mad from one perspective…’, as Jane says. And that sense of madness is reinforced when we hear from Ken that the State of Illinois seems to have found a way to deal with, rather than flee from, issues of responsibility, liability and so forth that need to be resolved in any joint use of (what are currently) school grounds.

    Andrew’s news (to be confirmed) from New York is, from one perspective, heartening; and troubling from another. That ‘another’ angle is the worry that NY has found a way to avoid the problem, rather than confront it at its core. But kids out on the streets – reclaiming the street – is a good in its own terms. But… (Incidentally, in an email from Lenore Skenazy – whose interesting web site is at – I learn that the Mayor of New York is trying to get schools to open at weekends and after school.)

    Jane continues by saying that the current position (in the UK) is, ‘… totally understandable from another’ perspective. Well, here I’m not so inclined to be charitable. Certainly we need to understand the reasons why we are where we are and what are the impediments to creating a new dispensation – the questions that need to be explored about the role, status and use of school grounds are many and varied – but our enhanced understanding must better equip us to make the arguments for change. It seems to me, however, unlikely that the impetus for change can come from schools themselves (though the hope is that many will be supportive). They have quite enough to do.

    If I wanted to crank up the emotional content of the current position, I could suggest that the current pattern of ownership and control of (UK) school grounds is an example of ‘land hoarding’ the effect of which is to deprive neighbourhoods of a scarce and precious resource.

    One last point for now. Comments have tended to focus on the school grounds as venues for play. And of course I ardently believe they should be. But my wider point, and the one I want to press home, is that school grounds represent a potential neighbourhood or community resource, to be thought of as potential ‘village greens’, places of inter-generational congregation and informal encounter. It is for me axiomatic that shared public spaces must be ‘playable’ spaces; that is, children and teenagers legitimised in the wider public realm.


  5. Having been impressed by the improvement to public play spaces in London, I was aghast at what was on offer in school grounds when our older child started reception a couple of years ago. I have recently had a meeting with the headteacher to talk about ideas for improving the space, but there are many constraints. Recently I was at a conference where someone was speaking about a fascinating initiative in New York, where schools suffer from the same cramped play spaces as many of their London counterparts. The solution has been to use local byelaws to close roads in front of schools during lunchtimes so that kids get to play out there instead!


  6. I don’t know whether to ruefully smile or just cry whenever this issue is raised.
    Thinking back five years or so, I was part of this very discussion within the local authority I worked for, and at the same time it was also being debated by Play England.
    As a parks officer, I had a park where the public play site was used on a daily basis by children from the school across the road (teacher supervised, of course!), who had no greenspace of their own, yet at the same time the council was searching other parts of the town, where public green space was non-existent, for sites that could potentially be made available to the public, and the only suitable space we found was a large closed off grass school field. Naturally the school management didn’t want to know.
    There’s the questions of security and safety to discuss, and there’s the issue of maintenance and management too. In areas, usually where there is a unitary authority, it is sometimes the case that the same contractor maintains both parks and school fields for the council. In other areas, where there’s a three tier system (parks are district managed, schools are county managed), the parks and schools are very separate, rarely if ever speak to each other, and I guess with academies there’s yet another party involved? I suppose what it comes down to is hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of individual negotiations between councils and schools in the communities where green space sharing is the best solution?
    Maybe once the new health authorities get going they too will want a say, with their role as local supporters of public health initiatives?


  7. Bernard I have thought this for sometime. The reverse is also true. I am currently building a new play development in a public play area managed and paid for by the PC. The school has a border with this park. The pupils however, do not have access to the play area from the school. This is quite normal and no one even thinks about it, let alone challenges it. It is crazy!!! Why can’t the children use the play space in their breaks – its spitting distance away…. The answer is complex and mostly historical and cultural. However it is obviously fuelled by fear. A school would not risk breaking with the status quo but they wouldn’t risk the criticism. Fuelled by the fear of strangers (stranger danger) fear of lack of control, by lunchtime supervisors, lack of trust of the pupils to behave responsibly etc etc etc….its culturally ‘just not done’.

    It is totally mad from one perspective and yet totally understandable from another.

    We insist on controlling our children and ‘protecting them from the community of people whom they live amongst’.

    It comes from the mentality that says that to protect and provide for our children we need to know where they are, know what they are doing and know who they are interacting with.. ”Letting them out’ is too risky.

    Being that this is the case, the need is to proivide for them within the barriers, within the fences. Having provided this safe space for them to be in, the same applies to letting other people in. There is reluctance to share what has been provided for ‘our own’ with other people who may not respect it or look after it.

    The European model of boundary free school grounds is miles away from ours. The play areas are spitting distance away but sadly the barrier between is so high one would need a damn good spit to make it reach!


  8. Ken, thanks for comment. It’s helpful because it demonstrates that arrangements can be made to secure school grounds for both community and school use. The two uses are not opposed to each other. Rather, they are potentially two sides of a desirable coin.


  9. We have similar concerns in the USA and many of us in the State of Illinois have found State legislative relief. THis state statute allows us to enter into an intergovernmental legal agreement. Most often the local park authority takes over the year round grounds maintenance for the sports fields and playground areas in exchange for supervised and unsupervised public use. The school district is responsible for all legal actions that might occur as a result of their use during school hours and other after school activities managed by the school. The park agency takes on legal repsonsibility for all year round activities beyond the school’s sanctioned activities. This serves the public taxpayer quite well and the local park agency is generally more skilled and equiped to handle outdoor turf management and play area inspections and maintenance than the school who focuses their efforts inside their four walls..


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