HC Deb 10 June 1999 vol 332 cc779-80
12. Mr. Nigel Beard (Bexleyheath and Crayford)

What plans he has to restrict the sale of school playing fields. [85412]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. Charles Clarke)

We have already delivered on our manifesto pledge to protect school playing fields. Since 1 October 1998, section 77 of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 has meant that local authorities in England may not dispose, or change the use, of school playing fields without the prior consent of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment. On 7 June, earlier this week, we published the criteria against which decisions on applications from local authorities and governing bodies will normally be made.

The first criterion is financial; any proceeds from sales must be returned to education or used to enhance sports provision. The second relates to schools' needs; the playing fields and other sports facilities that will be left must meet the needs of local schools, particularly primary schools. Thirdly, there are community needs; the playing fields and other sports facilities that will be left must meet the needs of the local community. The fourth criterion involves consultation; there must have been adequate consultation both locally and with recognised national bodies such as Learning through Landscapes, the Central Council of Physical Recreation or the National Playing Fields Association, so that their views can be taken into account. Those proposals offer a clear way forward in improving playing field provision in schools.

Mr. Beard

I thank the Minister for that answer. It was one of the scandals of the public asset stripping under the previous Government that 5,000 school playing fields were sold off. Does the Minister share the concern recently expressed by the National Association of Head Teachers about the level of fitness of many of their pupils, and their sedentary life styles? Will he give an assurance that school playing fields and sporting facilities will be used to ensure that standards of, and improvements in, fitness keep pace with classroom achievement?

Mr. Clarke

I agree with the points and sentiments expressed by my hon. Friend. We have a series of initiatives to develop a much healthier approach to life in school, ranging across changes in the national curriculum, our playing fields initiative, and our approach to diet and food. We have a joint healthy schools initiative, which I and my right hon. Friend the Minister for Public Health chair, to bring together and to develop activity in this area. We go down the line that has been set out by my hon. Friend. It is critical that we develop more resources for school playing fields and sporting activity, and better use of those facilities. Yesterday, I met representatives of the Central Council of Physical Recreation to discuss ways in which we might develop that approach.

Ms Harriet Harman (Camberwell and Peckham)

Does my hon. Friend recognise that there are major new opportunities for sport and for music, art and drama in the Government's new nationwide network of after-school clubs? What can my hon. Friend's Department do to ensure that these clubs take good care of, and look after, the children involved, and extend to them opportunities for sport, music, art and drama, which are often not available to them during their time in school?

Mr. Clarke

I strongly agree with my right hon. Friend, who puts the case with her traditional power and force. We are making resources available through the new opportunities fund, with £125 million being allocated for schools, councils, community groups and other organisations to improve access and develop the activities to which my right hon. Friend referred. We are encouraging out-of-school activity in music, arts and drama in the way that she suggests. We believe that that is an essential approach. Critical to it is developing a much better relationship between schools and their local communities and community organisations, so that real co-operation can be built up. We give this initiative major priority, and it is important that we continue to drive it forward.