Share in the community: widening use of sports facilities

Gary Johnson, director at LK2, which specialises in sports and leisure development and architecture, on how schools are transforming their approach

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? These types of statistics are worrying, but definitely something which highlight the need for good quality sporting facilities across the UK and within its schools.

The government 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: the local community, 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 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 implemented. Because of their frequent usage from 9-to-5 in the week – and their usually good 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. Part of the work we have been doing focuses on reviewing existing stock and finding the best way to enhance and optimise it for both independent and state 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.

“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 implemented.”

Providing a vibrant community programme and developing effective partnerships will support school improvement across the board. It often helps schools to better meet Ofsted’s requirements, as well as create 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, helping them to progress from school to a community club sport when they complete their full-time education. This, in turn, helps to create a generation of pupils with healthy sporting habits.

In recent months, we have been speaking to a number of independent schools about how they 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. 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.

There are definitely challenges when implementing community usage, the most prominent being 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 considering 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 what to offer. This will lower their exposure to risk and ensure the school will be operating sustainably, taking sensible steps not to undermine current local provision but to complement 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.

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