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The Guardian view on children and green space: private schools must open | Editorial

The Guardian view on children and green space: private schools must open |  Editorial

Ffresh air, playing outside, exercise: everyone knows that children need these things and want them to be healthy. Now more than ever, with an obesity crisis, a lack of affordable housing and rising concerns about intrusive smartphones, it is common sense to advocate for access to green space, sport and swimming. But as the Guardian’s investigation has shown, students in public schools are at a huge disadvantage compared to those in private schools. Children at the 250 highest-paying schools, many of which are charities, have more than ten times as much outdoor space as the 93% of pupils in England who are state-educated (in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland the proportion of private pupils is still lower).

The oldest and largest English schools look more like palaces, with websites and brochures full of promises of education taking place outside as well as in the classrooms. The contrast with the meager provision in the public sector, especially in some of the newest schools established since regulations on school buildings were relaxed in 2012, is shocking. More than 300 schools have a total of less than 1,000 square meters of outdoor space, and at least 20 have no playing or sports fields at all. There is also a downward trend in the amount of time spent on play and meal times, with school principals pointing to behavior and curriculum pressure. At the same time, youth care outside of school has been eroded by budget cuts. It is no wonder that sports such as cricket, rugby and rowing are still dominated by private school alumni.

Lack of leeway is not the only problem facing state schools. Derelict buildings pose a more immediate risk, while teacher shortages are likely the greatest threat. Labor has promised to use the around £1.5 billion it will raise from adding VAT to private school fees and ending business tax relief to recruit 6,500 new teachers.

Last year the party dropped its policy of stripping independent schools of charity status. So far she has vigorously defended her VAT plan, although Sir Keir Starmer has said there would be exemptions for pupils with education, health and care plans, which makes sense given the current lack of government provision. Meanwhile, figures showing the number of private pupils and schools rising last year have undermined warnings from the Independent Schools Council that families will be priced out.

As this column has previously argued, the British school system is deeply unfair. All children should receive high-quality education, including outdoor activities, regardless of whether their parents can afford the costs. Instead of complaining about taxes, private schools should try to build social capital in the communities they are part of. Sharing facilities by schools with historic donations of land and buildings should be standard practice. Hoarding such resources is antisocial.

An already skewed system has been further distorted by fourteen years of Conservative government. Underfunded, understaffed and demoralized state schools are struggling to recover from the pandemic, while private schools have repeatedly increased fees – widening the gap: around £3 is spent per private pupil for every £1 spent on a state school . Accepting that their tax exemption has reached its end, and joining efforts to increase access to green space, is the least these schools can do.