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School Sport Facilities: Reopening

Volume 728: debated on Tuesday 21 February 2023

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mike Wood.)

It is a pleasure to bring this issue to the Floor of the House and to be able to discuss opportunities to open up school sports facilities to the wider community. It is an issue very close to my heart as a self-confessed sports fanatic, hockey coach, occasional football referee, parent of kids involved in grassroots football and someone whose original ambition was to be a PE teacher. I cannot overstate how important I think sport, and particularly grassroots and community sport, is to our physical and mental health, to the development and growth of our young people, and to our social fabric and our general wellbeing.

The role sport plays and the value of it in the education and development of the next generation have, quite frankly, always been undervalued by Governments of all stripes. While the health benefits of physical activity are obvious, it also plays a major role in academic achievement and careers. Dundee University has shown an increase in academic performance by students who participated in more exercise than their peers, and this is something that can be scientifically measured: it is a real thing. If I wanted to get technical, I could even talk about how other studies have shown that regular exercise leads to better levels of concentration and better memory, but the real point that sport adds value across the board when it comes to developing young people is an important one. I consistently reiterate in this place that I think it is really important.

We also know that sport not only helps to develop the academic potential of a young person. Sport, particularly team games, helps to encourage the social development of young people and often provides that first instance of teamwork for many kids. All of us who have played sport know about the highs and lows it brings and the character building that comes from those experiences of determination, competitive spirit and overcoming challenges. These experiences help to make our young people more resilient and better able to deal with the rest of their lives.

The most disadvantaged communities also tend to be the least active, and they also tend to have the least access to sports facilities, so this is a levelling-up mission too, which is really important. As I keep saying, this is really important. We need to help more people to access facilities and to access sport. There is a lot to that, and I could bang on for ever. We recently had a debate here, with the Minister for Sport—the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, my right hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew)—on the Front Bench, about sport in schools and communities, so I am not going to reiterate all of that. However, as we have an Education Minister here, and I am very grateful for her time, I will flag again that the PE and sport premium is really important. I know it is being discussed, because teachers are regularly contacting me to ask if it can be finalised and sorted.

The Football Association has raised concerns that school sport premium funding is often announced very late in the academic year, and therefore schools struggle to make plans on how to use that, often laying off staff who they then have to re-employ. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Department for Education and the Treasury should perhaps agree that settlement for two or three years so that planning, provision and people can be put in place?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. We all know about the recent economic challenges around long-term planning, but the sooner we can have longer-term security around staffing the better. I would make the same point about the Department of Health and Social Care funding stream for school games organisers. They are in the same boat; if the funding is not confirmed soon, they will have to lay people off and then start again. The cost of that is unnecessary and burdensome for schools.

This evening I want to focus on school facilities, however. One way to increase access to sports facilities across the country is by ensuring that schools are able to open their sports facilities for public use. We are investing in new sports centres, and lots of levelling-up funds and other funds have recently come forward for new facilities, including Warsop leisure and health centre in my constituency. That is really positive, and means that, thanks to this Government, we will finally replace the old, dilapidated leisure centre that the Mansfield independent-led council closed around four years ago. That is great; I have campaigned on it and have been keen to secure it, and I am really pleased we are going to be able to do it this year. But when I look across the road from the leisure centre, I see a school sports field with football pitches, a multi-use games area, a basketball court, tennis courts and school sports facilities that are already there. It is fortunate that in Warsop some of them—not all—are open to the wider community, but when I first came to Parliament five years ago I was shocked to find that the general public were not able to access 45% of the sports facilities in state-funded schools; almost half provide no public access at all.

Does my hon. Friend agree that for some of the indoor facilities, particularly swimming pools but also gyms, the problem might be that the exorbitant cost of heating at present prevents the school from doing something, because it will cost them money even if they charge for use of their facilities?

I was not planning to go through everything we discussed in the previous sports debate, but we talked at length about that issue, and my right hon. Friend is absolutely right that the cost of running sports facilities, in particular swimming pools, is hugely challenging at present. The business energy support does not tackle that; it does not specifically help or offer that support for leisure facilities, and I have asked Ministers to look at that. I know my right hon. Friend has spoken about that, too. It would be great to see support come forward for such facilities, making them more accessible and affordable.

In light of that, the proportion of facilities that the public cannot access will be even higher than 45% now. I can think of multiple large secondary schools even in my constituency that have recently removed that access to sports facilities for communities because of additional costs post-covid; the commercial viability of running centres reduced because customers disappeared during covid, making them a drain on school budgets.

To give an example, Manor Academy in Mansfield Woodhouse closed its sports centre for community use post-covid. That is understandable; I am not going to point fingers at the school, because I understand why it feels that it should direct its funds towards the academics and the students, and that it is not its job to subsidise community leisure provision—it was losing money on it. I sympathise with that, therefore, and I am not here to assign blame, but we are 18 months on now, and still multiple football pitches, a hockey pitch—the only hockey pitch in Mansfield—an indoor sports hall and other facilities remain inaccessible.

As that hockey pitch remains closed, the hockey club remains effectively homeless. I have been trying to broker a solution between councils, the academy trust and North Notts Hockey Club, but it has been a real slog and has taken 18 months now. I think we are getting there, and I am hopeful that when we meet again in a few weeks we will have a solution to take forward, but, as I will discuss, the challenges and bureaucracy around trying to pull that together have been very difficult, and it should not be so hard when on the surface all partners involved want to make that happen.

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech highlighting an important issue. Does he agree that it might be helpful if the Department for Education’s model lease for academies included a requirement that, where it can be done at no cost to the school, those taxpayer-funded sports facilities should be available for community use when not in use by the school?

That is certainly an option. Where taxpayers are funding those facilities, they should be able to use them. In cases such as Manor Academy, where schools do not feel able to do that, they could give the facilities back. Let the community or the district leisure trust run them—whoever is willing to open them up. I thank my hon. Friend for raising that point.

What we have ended up with is, arguably, the best sports facilities in the Woodhouse area, which supported countless grass roots clubs, being there and visible—people know them and used to play on them—but not available. Meanwhile, we are short of hockey pitches—we have none—and of rugby and football pitches. All the major venues are full across the area—across the whole county in fact. I get grassroots clubs coming to me all the time seeking more capacity, particularly for football, although every school has a massive flat field that lots of people could play football on, if they were available.

Although we all think sport is very important, it is rarely the top priority in times of covid, cost of living, health and other crises—everything is a crisis—for any of the organisations such as schools, councils and Government, so it never makes it to the top of the to-do list. That is something that I am trying to shift in my own organisation, to make sure that provision for community sports services is top of its agenda. All the prevention stuff means that the council does not have to step in and sort everybody out later. Sports facilities are a real part of that, and I am asking the Minister to try to help me shift the dial in government. It is an issue that falls across Departments, and is never top of anybody’s list. We all talk about it, but we need to shift the dial.

The example at Manor Academy represents a missed opportunity to give a significant boost to grassroots sports, to meet some of that need, and obviously to access all the positive implications that has for the community, such as improved physical and mental health. In many cases, facilities already exist. Surely, common sense dictates that it would be quicker and cheaper to simply open up existing facilities than to build new ones, especially with the rising costs of capital projects. A small amount of infrastructure in terms of admin support for bookings would be enough at some sites; others might need advice on managing liability and insurance, and wading through the bureaucracy, which would allow clubs to take on management of facilities at weekends. Some sites might need a small amount of capital funding for a portacabin for some changing rooms separate to the school buildings, or gates and access arrangements might need to be sorted. Those things are not unachievable, but they can seem very difficult when partners need to be brought together to work towards that goal and wade through the legal stuff and everything else.

When clubs have some certainty for the long term, they can attract the funding for improvements from existing routes, such as Sport England, the Football Foundation or the county council’s local community fund. Some of that can be managed locally, and I volunteer my own council to manage it or pilot that administration if we can access support to ensure that we have the staff capacity up front. It does not need Government to do it, in that sense, but the Government’s help is needed to set the clear direction of travel. That could be by changing lease agreements to make sure that taxpayer-funded facilities are available to taxpayers, or by offering the capacity to get started—a bit of upfront support, with the proviso that the schemes have to become self-sustaining in the long term. Many of them could be, but they need an initial outlay on making them fit for purpose and managing administration, such as booking systems. In many cases it would be self-funding, but it needs support to get going. Given that it is a levelling-up outcome, as I have said, with disadvantaged communities often having least access, and that levelling up funds may be returned in coming months as rising costs make projects unviable—I have no doubt that we will see councils saying that they can no longer deliver some schemes— perhaps some of those funds could be repurposed to help with this.

Secondly, the Government need to be clear that they expect everyone to facilitate this—as my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (David Simmonds) suggested—and be permissive when it comes to navigating the bureaucracy. Even though partners want to work together, the biggest barrier is the system—the perceived safeguarding implications for schools even on a weekend when nobody is there; legal teams stressing about insurance and who has liability if someone falls over; and local planners rejecting permissions for even the simplest things such as using sites for slightly different hours. We need to be clear with schools. Some do not see it as their job, understandably, others do not have capacity and others just will not help to get it going. It requires lots of partners to pull together in the same direction and all prioritise it at the same time, so it sometimes feels as though it is not doable. It should not take two years to sort a solution for Manor sports centre. The Government need to be clear, and to demand that taxpayer-funded facilities are available for taxpayers to use and that partners and stakeholders should facilitate that use and not put barriers in the way.

I have heard about an Opening School Facilities programme, but I cannot point to a practical example of where this has happened—I wonder whether the Minister can tell me about that. I have heard of pilot schemes to try to facilitate administration and bookings, as I have described. I spoke to the last but one sports Minister about those pilots, but I have not heard of any outcome or of what the next steps are. If Ministers want to help my council with some initial capacity, I will happily work with Government to get this up and running in Nottinghamshire and prove the case. Officials in the Department will, no doubt, point to some open process of pilot projects or whatever, but I am standing here volunteering, so if someone needs to pick a next step and give it a go, they should tell me what it is and I will work with Government to make that happen.

I hope the Minister can update me on what is happening with these programmes, particularly in the light of the new sports strategy—I know that that is not in her Department, but I understand that it will include plans on accessing facilities for grassroots sport. What is the next step in making this happen and ensuring that the sports facilities in our communities are not mothballed and are not unavailable for use, but are actually there for the community? How can I take that forward and ensure that Mansfield residents have full access to all the wonderful community spaces that they have often previously enjoyed but cannot now as they are locked away? I look forward to her comments.

I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley) has secured this debate to cover the important topic of reopening school sports facilities. I know he has been a long-standing, passionate campaigner in this area and has been speaking about it ever since he came into Parliament. The wellbeing of children, both mental and physical, is a priority for this Government, and we know that schools have a critical role to play. Mental health and physical health are inextricably linked, and the value of participating in sport and doing regular exercise is well known—we all see that all the time. It is important that children understand that good physical health contributes to good mental wellbeing. Sport and physical activity are an essential part of a healthy and happy life, which benefits us as individuals and makes sure that we can stay healthy in our older age.

Sport also has the power to bring communities closer together, increasing engagement between different people and helping to tackle issues such as loneliness. I am passionate about community spaces and I welcome my hon. Friend’s comments on that. It is wonderful that members of the community can take part in different things on school premises, because we get a general sense of engagement and togetherness.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield was talking about state schools, aided schools and academies. Does the Minister recognise that many independent schools recognise their responsibility to the wider community and have people coming to use their facilities? Does she further agree that Labour’s curmudgeonly plan to charge VAT on those schools might jeopardise that very community-minded spirit that many independent schools have?

I thank my right hon. Friend for that, and he is of course right in what he says; I have seen lots of examples of independent schools being real hubs in their communities and bringing lots of people together. I also have a personal viewpoint on this, because a lot of independent schools are specialist schools and are providing amazing provision to children with special educational needs—I have seen some of them in action.

We know that covid-19 restricted the amount of sport that schools could offer during and after the school day. It is important that we help not just to get things back on track, but to lay the groundwork for going further and increasing physical activity and participation in sport. The chief medical officers recommend that children should take part in 60 minutes of physical activity a day. The latest annual data from the “Active Lives Children and Young People” survey, released in December, has been encouraging. It shows that the proportion of children who are active has increased by 2.6% compared with the previous academic year, bringing activity levels back in line with the pre-pandemic numbers.

Fundamental to an active community is having sufficient sports facilities of the right quality. That is why the Government are investing £230 million between 2022 and 2025 in improving community sports facilities across all four home nations.

The Minister was making a point about children’s participation in sport, particularly in schools. Does she share my concern that over the past 10 years some 40,000 hours of physical education have been lost in secondary schools? Will she update the House on what her Department’s progress is in delivering the commitment the Prime Minister made to the Lionesses last year, after their spectacular win in the Euros, to have two hours of PE per week as a minimum in every school across the country and to involve Ofsted in inspecting sport in schools?

The Prime Minister and many other people in the Government are passionate about children’s access to PE. I will come on to some of the sport strategies we are looking at and set them out in further detail.

The Government also support physical activity and sport outside the school term. The £200 million a year we are spending on the holiday activities and food programme, which is delivered by local authorities in England, has been a tremendous way to increase access. Some of the figures I have looked at on children accessing holiday activities who have never done anything like that before are really quite heartwarming.

Alongside community facilities, facilities on school sites represent an important resource for pupils and their families. Although schools may need support with the logistics of opening up their facilities—my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield spoke to some of them—the phase 3 funding we have set out will allow them to ensure that their facilities are more easily accessible to families, other community users and local clubs, while remaining secure. Since October 2019, the Department for Education has provided £11.7 million to schools to support them to make best use of their sports facilities beyond the core school day and to start to reopen them after the pandemic.

In phase 2 of the Opening School Facilities programme, over 280,000 young people were supported to take part in over 60 types of extracurricular sports and physical activities, including traditional sports such as football and tennis, and new activities such as BMX and skateboarding. The Department will also be providing further investment support to schools to open their sports facilities in the evening, at weekends and during the holidays by funding phase 3 of the programme with up to £57 million over three years. As well as providing practical support and advice, phase 3 will also support schools to create new partnerships with national governing bodies and local sport providers to broaden the extracurricular opportunities available to their pupils, as well as providing a benefit to the wider community.

With that, I would like to thank everyone who has taken part in today’s debate, and in particular my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield, who I know will continue to press on this issue.

Before the Minister sits down, will she allow me to highlight a point about extracurricular sport? I am really grateful for the update, because I was not aware of the detail of the Opening School Facilities programme. It sounds really positive. I recently met the Schools Minister to talk about trying to get sportspeople into schools and into teaching. We spoke with my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) about the Professional Footballers Association and trying to get academy footballers into primary teaching. So often, it is the people with that experience who will then stay after school and run sports in communities. My hon. Friend gave examples of people who run the holiday activities fund programme because of their coaching background. I urge the Minister to have a look at that scheme, and to encourage the Department to bring it forward. Opportunities to get sportspeople into schools will really help us to deliver on that kind of provision as well.

I thank my hon. Friend. I would be delighted to look at that scheme and see what more we can do. The teachers I have met who come from a sporting background bring, as he says, so much enthusiasm to their role.

Question put and agreed.

House adjourned.