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Revealed: students at top private schools have 10 times more green space than state pupils
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Revealed: students at top private schools have 10 times more green space than state pupils

Children at the top 250 English private schools have more than 10 times as much outdoor space as those who go to state schools, an exclusive Guardian analysis can reveal.

A schoolboy at fee-charging Eton has access to 140 times more green space than the average English state school pupil, the analysis found. Experts condemned the “staggering” and “gross” inequalities.

The Guardian mapped the land owned and used by the top private schools in the country – an area never previously established. Using publicly available information, alongside satellite tools to map school buildings and green space, the analysis established that:

  • The average student at one of England’s top private schools has access to approximately 322 sq metres of green space, whereas the average state school student has access to about 32 sq metres of green space: a ratio of 10:1.

  • Eton students enjoy the largest area of land of all the schools in the country, with its schoolboys having access to 4,445 sq metres per pupil an area, 140 times larger than that available to the average state school student. Some of that land is also accessible to the public.

  • The private school campuses include tennis courts, golf courses, rowing lakes, swimming pools, equestrian centres, wilderness areas, and remote camping lodges.

  • In contrast, some state schools have little or no green space at all for their students.

As the UK heads to the election booths to choose between the Conservatives and the Labour party, which has promised to remove the exemption from VAT on independent school fees against some strong lobbying from the sector, the findings are a reminder of the profound gap between the early experiences of children from wealthy families and the rest of the population; just 7% of children attend an independent school.

“The inequalities in access to green space between independent and state schools, while not surprising, are staggering in magnitude,” said Prof Michael Marmot, director of the UCL Institute of Health Equity, and author of the landmark Fair Society Healthy Lives report in 2010 (more often referred to as the Marmot review).

“The playing fields of Eton may be a well-worn cliche; the lack of playing fields in your local state school is an all-too-present reality.”

The Guardian analysed all of the English schools in the Heads’ Conference (HMC) – the association of the heads of the UK’s top private fee-charging day and boarding schools, which are also described as public or independent schools. It calculated in-campus green space as open space belonging to the school and within a 3-mile (5km) radius, and therefore accessible to the students.

Winchester college, where the current prime minister, Rishi Sunak, went to school, owns the most land overall – more than 8,000 acres – but the second most for students as, according to its website, pupils only have access to about 250 acres, while the rest appears to be land holdings. Eton’s campus covers 1666 acres, with students having access to just under 1500 acres of that.

Eton college.View image in fullscreen

Lord Wandsworth college boasts the third most land, with a 1,079-acre campus, of which 1,027 acres is green space within 5km of the school.

Stonyhurst has a 1,050 acre campus, Stowe has 850 acres, and Radley college 847.

In total the schools own 38,086 acres of land (154.1 million sq metres), of which 19,430 (78.6 million sq metres), according to the Guardian’s analysis, is accessible to the students.

Close to 245,000 pupils attended these private schools in the 2021/22 academic year, meaning they had an average of 322 sq metres of green space to each student. This is likely to be a conservative estimate.

Meanwhile, according to the Department for Education, state schools have 263,300,000 sq metres of green space and playgrounds, which is 32 sq metres to each student, a calculation based on the average number of pupils enrolled in state schools between 2017 and 2021 (between 8 million and 9 million a year). According to the Guardian’s calculations, the private school students therefore have access to 10 times as much outdoor space as those at state schools.

The 250 members of the HMC that the Guardian looked at make the most of that land, laying a heavy emphasis on sport, outdoor activities and the importance of life outdoors in their curriculums and sales material. Eton tells parents of prospective pupils that “we believe boys learn as much, if not more, outside the classroom as they do inside it”. Rugby school says its educational model is one where “all the facets of life – academic and artistic, spiritual and sporting – form part of an indivisible whole”.

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Rowers on a canal lined by greeneryView image in fullscreen

Some state schools, however, have little or no green space for their students at all, while at those that do, budgetary constraints and curriculum demands often mean that sport and other outdoor activities can’t be prioritised in the same way, experts told the Guardian.

Marmot said unequal access to green space is likely to have a profound effect on children’s mental and physical wellbeing, citing evidence that exercising in green space improves mental health and reduces inequalities in mortality, and is also likely to impact increasing rates of childhood obesity. “A school with limited access to playing fields or open space will have a great deal more difficulty in building exercise into children’s lives,” he said.

He added: “What impact does it have on a child or young person knowing that students in the independent school are more privileged in almost every way, including access to green space? Differential access to green space is yet another aspect in which the state school pupil is relatively disadvantaged.”

Studies have shown the cognitive boost that green surroundings give children, and one study in Belgium linked green space to higher IQs. “There is more and more evidence that green surroundings are associated with our cognitive function, such as memory skills and attention,” said Tim Nawrot, a professor of environmental epidemiology at Hasselt University in Belgium, who worked on that study.

A lack of green space for children is a health and equality issue, according to Dan Paskins, director of UK impact at Save the Children. “This new analysis by the Guardian reveals a gross inequality within the schools system and is something we are deeply concerned about. Considering the right of a child to play is upheld in the UN convention on the rights of the child, which the UK signed 34 years ago, the UK government must urgently look at how it can dramatically improve access to green spaces for schoolchildren from all economic backgrounds.”

Dr Sarah Clarke, president of the Royal College of Physicians, said ministers must take urgent action to boost state school pupils’ access to green space. “This investigation provides yet another clear example of how some in society – through no fault of their own – literally cannot make the healthy choices which can help them lead healthy lives. Everything from where we live, the food we eat, to the air we breathe directly impacts our health – and access to outdoor spaces is no different.”

Rugby schoolView image in fullscreen

The Guardian contacted all the private schools mentioned in this article. Those that got back to us said that providing green space for less privileged children was a priority, and gave examples of how they do so, to various degrees. Eton told us that much of their land is either farmed or “open space enjoyed by the whole community”. Winchester says that it has a wide range of community links, including volunteer programmes with a number of local schools, as well as hosting numerous events within its facilities.

Lord Wandsworth College partners with several local schools; Stonyhurst offer their facilities and green spaces to local families and schools, as well as running collaborative initiatives and “fostering community engagement beyond traditional academic activities”. And Stowe said all their facilities can be used by visiting clubs and schools: “Every child deserves an excellent education and a good start in life and we are committed to reducing social inequality. To that purpose Stowe has created transformational partnerships with a growing network of organisations.”

Neither HMC nor the Department of Education commented.

Source: theguardian.com