School pitches being sold at 'one a week'

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School pitches on which future Jonny Wilkinsons might learn to play sports are being sold at a rate of almost one a week, campaigners say.

Since laws to protect school games pitches were introduced in 1998, local education chiefs have submitted 213 applications to sell grounds and only six have been refused, according to the National Playing Fields Association.

The figures were released as the Rugby Football Union and the Department for Education and Skills attempt to capitalise on England's historic World Cup victory and boost interest in the game in state schools. School rugby officials said yesterday that only about one in eight schools in England plays rugby. The Rugby Football Union is keen to dispel the image of rugby as a game for fee-paying schools alone.

In an attempt to attract new players who would not normally get an opportunity to play rugby, the RFU has organised almost 90 taster coaching days for under-17s.

Ron Tennick, of the England Rugby Football Schools' Union, said there were 3,000 rugby-playing schools - both primary and secondary - out of 24,000. About 600 of those were independent schools, he added.

"There are lots of state schools playing rugby but the strength of the game still lies in the independent sector," he said. "State school rugby was hit very badly by the teacher strikes in the 1970s when staff refused to take out-of-school clubs. It has not recovered."

But he argued that the RFU's policy of encouraging schools rugby using youth development officers had helped the sport to hold its own against rivals such as football.

Some independent schools have dropped rugby completely. Last year, the King's School, Ely, announced that the sport was to be phased out. Dover College and the City of London School have also abandoned it.

The continuing sale of school pitches will worry those involved in school sport.

The number of pitches began to fall after 1982 when the Conservative government allowed local education authorities to sell fields deemed to be surplus to requirements. Labour pledged to reverse the trend when it came to power in 1997 and introduced rules to restrict land sales and to ensure that any proceeds were reinvested in the school.

But the figures released by the National Playing Fields Association suggest that school fields are still being sold at the rate of nearly one a week.

Elsa Davies, the charity's director, said: "Drip, drip, drip! Our children's heritage is slowly but surely being eroded away in a series of small-scale defeats."

The Department for Education and Skills argued that only 125 applications had resulted in the loss of land large enough to be used as sports pitches. Fifty sales were at closed or closing schools. Twenty-six more resulted in better sports facilities, a spokeswoman said.