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News archive - November/December 2018

Analysis: Sharing sports facilities

As the Department for Education publishes new guidance on ways in which fee-paying schools should collaborate with neighbouring state schools, Gary Johnson, director at LK2, which specialises in sports and leisure development and architecture, discusses how schools can offer local communities use of their sports facilities.

Did you know that if we took the least fit child from a class of 30 we tested in 1998, they would be one of the five fittest children in a class of the same age today? Worrying, yes, and something which highlights the need for good quality sporting facilities across the UK and within its schools.

The Government’s strategy, Sporting Future, is aiming to create better access to high quality open spaces for communities across the country, helping to fight the obesity epidemic and other health issues the UK is facing. One of the solutions is to create opportunities for sport, leisure and recreation within urban extensions or mixed-use developments, including schools, universities and colleges. This approach, which focuses on enhancing existing developments, also supports the Sport England strategy (Towards An Active Nation) which prioritises tackling inactivity, locally investing in urban and rural areas and creating welcoming sports facilities.

Recently, we have been working to pioneer the future of urban extensions across the country to create sustainable sports and leisure solutions to benefit everyone involved; from the local community, to sporting institutions and governing bodies. Thanks to new types of funding and tweaks to existing funding streams, I have found that more and more schools are beginning to consider opening up their facilities to the local community; helping to optimise existing usage, increase revenue and also enhance their stock with crucial funding from sporting organisations.

Many schools already have fantastic, high quality, multi-purpose facilities at their disposal, which is part and parcel of why community use is so successful when it is implemented. Because of their frequent usage from 9 to 5 in the week, and their usually good existing maintenance regimes, school sports facilities are particularly attractive to organisations such as the FA and other funders, when considering investment and further development. There is definitely a real drive across the UK to improve school sporting stock as much as possible; this is partly due to budgets being cut, which resulted in underused facilities in schools being lost such as playing fields. Fortunately, with investment and a community usage strategy, many schools can now not only retain their existing facilities, but in fact make them even better.

There are bountiful benefits to providing a well-integrated community offer within schools, and part of the work we have been doing focusses on reviewing existing stock, and finding the best way to enhance and optimise it for both independent and state-funded schools. In many cases, implementing community usage has allowed schools to enhance their facilities with new funding, often through the installation of artificial grass pitches, swimming pool enhancements, better changing facilities, state-of-the-art performance studios and fitness suites in the process.

Providing a vibrant community programme and developing effective partnerships will support school improvement on a whole, and often helps schools to better meet Ofsted’s requirements; creating a school which offers sporting excellence to promote physical wellbeing; two things which are high on the government’s agenda.

Ultimately, schools are a fantastic place for communities to gather and participate in affordable and convenient classes, which is another reason they attract investment. Traditional gyms or niche clubs can seem overwhelming to individuals looking to boost their fitness, which is what makes school facilities work so well for community programmes and clubs. When a school develops links with community clubs, it is also better able to integrate its pupils with the local community; helping them to progress from school to a community club sport when they complete their full-time education – in turn, helping to create a generation of pupils who have healthy sporting habits.

In recent months, we have been speaking to a number of independent schools about how they too can diversify their sports facilities in order to open them up for community use. The fact that even large private schools are seeking to implement community usage shows that there is a wider issue at play across the education spectrum, but I am pleased that there are funding solutions available to combat these problems. We have also been working with a couple of multi-academy trusts to review their sports/leisure stock across their portfolio of schools to improve the offer for not only students but the community too; which once again shows a growing appetite for this new kind of approach.

There are definitely challenges which schools can face when implementing community usage, the most prominent being both management and staffing. A great model relies on being thrifty with timings, ensuring that sporting facilities receive optimum usage; for example, hosting fun clubs between lesson times or early bird sessions before the start of school. This type of clever scheduling helps facilities to be used to their fullest, resulting in more revenue and also enabling a wider audience to access them. Both Sport England and the National Governing Bodies have plenty of resources available to schools which can help them to implement a robust strategy which considers everything from pricing to staffing.

My advice to any schools looking to open up their provisions to their communities is to take a strategic approach when deciding on which provisions to offer. This will lower their exposure to risk and will ensure the school will be operating sustainably, taking sensible steps not to undermine current local provision and instead complementing it. There are more and more organisations out there looking to invest in sporting facilities, and I truly think schools are a great place to start making a positive change in communities.