EXCLUSIVE: 17 of 41 free schools opened in 2018/19 have no on-site PE facilities

Janet Downs's picture

Seventeen of 41 free schools opened in the academic year 2018/19 have no on-site sports facilities, a belated Freedom of Information response reveals.

53 free schools (not including UTCs) opened in September 2018 but the DfE has excluded twelve from its reply.  This is because they were opened through the ‘free schools presumption route’.

It’s unclear why the FoI response omitted these.  They are, after all, still free schools irrespective of whether they came into being via the presumption route. 

We do know, however, that seventeen of 41 free schools opened in 2018/19 don’t have on-site provision for physical education.  That’s 41%.

The DfE says the School Premises (England) Regulations 2012 ensure ‘all free schools have access to the outdoor space required to fulfil their physical education curriculum’.   If this isn’t on-site, pupils will use ‘nearby, off-site provision’.

The National Curriculum lays down statutory programmes for PE in Key Stages 1 to 4, but free schools, like academies, can opt out of the national curriculum. 

Ofsted chief Amanda Spielman told the Observer in July that ‘sport and exercise for young people were vital parts of a full and balanced education’.  She wanted the government to take more steps towards increasing the amount of physical education offered in schools amid fears it was being ‘squeezed out of the curriculum’ because of funding pressure and ‘excessive focus on exam results’.

Also in July, the former education secretary Damian Hinds announced a ‘Schools Sport and Activity Action Plan’ (SSAAP) which ‘will help set children up to lead healthy lives’.  But Hinds has now gone.  It’s not known if SSAAP will keep sprinting or run out of breath.

Government initiatives are undermined if schools are allowed to open without on-site provision for PE.  Travelling to a local park or leisure centre for, say, an hour of PE once a week is hardly an adequate substitute for having facilities on-site.. 

Ofsted’s commitment to PE is also undermined when inspectors judge a free school outstanding where ‘reduced access to off-site sporting facilities has restricted the curriculum and provision for pupils’ physical education’ and sport, apart from table tennis and basketball, is ‘limited’.

It’s not just reduced sports provision that characterises some free schools.  A Schools Week investigation has found ‘Almost half of the new free schools of the past three years opened in temporary accommodation, with most still not in a permanent home.’ 

It’s hard not to hark back to a time when schools were opened in purpose-built accommodation on sites with playing fields.  But now we have free schools which are too often opened in unsuitable buildings with inadequate facilities.   That’s supposed to be progress.  It’s not.

ADDENDUM added 18.07  The DfE said 63 of 20,498 non-free schools had no on-site sports provision.  That's 0.3%.

CORRECTION 24 September, 09.42:  I originally gave the  ‘Schools Sport and Activity Action Plan’ the acronym SPAAT.  I've no idea why.  I've now put it right.




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Ned Newitt's picture
Tue, 24/09/2019 - 12:01

Hi Janet,
I am writing an article about a religious private fee paying Islamic School in Leicester. It has two sites one a former factory and the other a former warehouse. Neither have a playground let alone playing fields, yet the bone of contention when a planning application was submitted to establish the school was parking. Does a local authority have powers to refuse an application for educational use when the buildings and provision on the site is clearly inadequate?
Kind regard,
Ned Newitt



Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 24/09/2019 - 12:46

Hi, Ned,

Local Authorities can reject or accept any application for building, change of use, etc on the merit of the planning application.  They must consider only issues which relate to planning (eg traffic, flood risk).  There is, as far as I'm aware, no planning restriction on schools opening without outdoor space.  If there were, the 41 free schools opened in 2018 without on-site PE facilities would not have been allowed to open.

Hope this is of some help.


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