Wednesday briefing: Why private schools have 10 times the outdoor space of state schools

<span>The playing field and cricket nets at Dulwich college. </span><span>Photograph: View Pictures/Universal Images Group/Getty Images</span>
The playing field and cricket nets at Dulwich college. Photograph: View Pictures/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

Good morning.

There is a wealth of scientific and anecdotal evidence that shows spending time in green spaces has significant mental and physical benefits for everyone, particularly children. Even just looking at scenes of nature can reduce stress and regulate heart rate. But not everyone gets access to nature in the same way.

A Guardian investigation by the data and environment desks has found there is a huge disparity between the level of access to outdoor space that children at state schools receive in comparison to those at private schools. Guardian analysis has revealed that children at the top 250 English private schools have more than 10 times as much outdoor space as those who go to state schools.

Independent schools own 38,086 acres of land, of which 19,430 acres is accessible to their students – meaning that the average private school student has access to 322 sq metres of green space in comparison to 32 sq metres for the average state school student.

The inequality, found by collating publicly available data and satellite tools, has been described as “staggering in magnitude” and “gross” by experts. For today’s newsletter, I spoke with the Guardian’s assistant environment editor, Bibi van der Zee, to better understand why access to green space matters so much. That’s right after the headlines.

Five big stories

  1. North Korea | Vladimir Putin arrived in North Korea on Tuesday for a summit with Kim Jong-un, amid US warnings against any agreement that could add to military pressure on Ukraine and raise tensions on the Korean peninsula. They are scheduled to meet again on Wednesday and sign agreements designed to deepen a relationship that has strengthened significantly since Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine.

  2. General election 2024 | Labour has challenged the Conservatives to match its commitment to strengthen the Office for Budget Responsibility within the first 100 days of government. The changes are intended to prevent a repeat of Liz Truss’s catastrophic mini-budget, which was delivered without an OBR forecast, by preventing ministers from “gagging” the watchdog in future.

  3. China | Hundreds of Uyghur villages and towns have been renamed by Chinese authorities to remove religious or cultural references, with many replaced by names reflecting Communist party ideology, a report has found.

  4. Israel | The Israeli foreign minister, Israel Katz, has said a decision on an all-out war with Hezbollah was coming soon, as Israel generals announced late on Tuesday that they had signed off planning for an offensive into Lebanon. The escalating rhetoric came after the release of video footage from a Hezbollah surveillance drone’s overflight of the northern city of Haifa, which included images of sensitive sites and civilian neighbourhoods.

  5. Environment | Microplastics have been discovered in penises for the first time, raising questions about a potential role in erectile dysfunction. Male fertility has fallen in recent decades and more research on potential harm of microplastics to reproduction is imperative, say experts.

In depth: ‘You want a fair chance for every child, not this grotesquely skewed system’

Helena Horton had a look at what private school students are enjoying with all of this ample space. She found that students at Eton College enjoy 40 football and rugby pitches, 19 cricket pitches, 50 tennis courts and a world renowned lake that was a venue for the rowing and canoeing events at the 2012 Olympics. At Stowe school, students can take part in beagling – a hunting sport. Radley college has multiple croquet lawns and a nine-hole golf course. And on and on.

While some particularly wealthy independent schools with charitable status do open up access to some of their facilities to the public, many do not. “The problem is that opening up is on an entirely voluntary basis,” Bibi says.

Meanwhile, some state schools do not have any playgrounds or playing fields – one school in central London does not have any access to green space at all, with students forced to spend break times indoors. In response to the findings of the Guardian investigation, David Kynaston, historian and co-author of Engines of Privilege: Britain’s Private School Problem, said: “There are all sorts of inequality in the world. But for me the inequality of children is among the worst. These years are so life moulding, they determine so much. You want a fair chance for every child, not this grotesquely skewed system.”


Why is the disparity so big?

As with most public institutions in England, the situation was not always like this. “State schools did have much bigger grounds but from the 80s onwards there was a massive sell-off of the fields by schools and local councils,” Bibi says. Between 1979 and 1997 approximately 10,000 school playing fields were sold off and this legacy persisted, albeit at a slower pace, under successive Labour and Conservative governments.

The decline of outdoor space for state schools was further accelerated in 2012 by Michael Gove’s decision to abandon regulations that required secondary schools with more than 600 pupils have 35,000 sq metres of playing fields, which is about 58 sq metres for each child. The purpose of this change, the government said, was to make it easier and cheaper to open new free schools. Old office buildings with no green space were converted into schools, some of which, a recent Observer investigation found, were not properly surveyed by the government for asbestos and unstable concrete.

In a similar but opposite trajectory, private schools were not always designed to incubate the elite and create huge inequality. “Originally the founders of many of the oldest schools were set up specifically to create educational opportunities for poor children – their charters laid this out. But at a certain point charters and requirements got rewritten so that those commitments no longer had to be fulfilled, and schools were allowed to take in whoever they wanted,” Bibi says.


The impact on children

Particularly since the pandemic, when everyone was forced indoors, the importance of access to green space has become blindingly obvious to all of us.

The cognitive, behavioural, emotional and academic benefits of green space for children is well documented: “It feels like every month we learn something new,” Bibi says. For young people it can help regulate behaviour, improve mood, boost the immune system and even improve academic performance. In children under the age of six, a study found that using green spaces improves sleep, balance, and motor coordination, reduces nearsightedness and instils a concern for nature that carries into adulthood. For more on the benefits of green space to young brains, read Sally Weale’s analysis.

Despite the mountain of data, there is little political urgency from the main parties to redress this huge imbalance, even with warnings from unions, teachers and academics that children are facing a “brutal” loss. Doctors have said that the “truly alarming” lack of access to the outdoors at schools is aggravating Britain’s child obesity crisis. In its manifesto, the Labour party gestured at providing more mental health support for students, but “those things surely follow access to outdoor play and green space”, Bibi adds.

Even without all the data there is also the intangible benefit of being in nature. “All of us want to be outside,” Bibi says. “I feel like science is trying to explain to us why this matters, which is vital, but we already know, instinctively, we feel and live better when we have access to green spaces.”

For more reporting on the environment and climate crisis from Bibi and the team, sign up here to receive Down to Earth every Thursday

What else we’ve been reading

  • Chris Godfrey has interviewed TV’s favourite cousin Ebon Moss-Bachrach (pictured above) about his rise from jobbing actor to one of the breakout stars of The Bear – and why he’s just getting started. Hannah J Davies, deputy editor, newsletters.

  • Alex Hern and Dan Milmo interviewed arguably the most private person in tech, Signal’s president, Meredith Whittaker, about her concerns around surveillance and privacy in the modern age. Nimo

  • If Elon Musk thinks “raging misogyny” is OK, asks Arwa Mahdawi, what message does that send to his employees? Hannah

  • Hard right, extreme right, neo-fascist, populist, nativist: the list of labels for far-right political parties in Europe can feel ever expanding. Jon Henley has given us a helpful lowdown on what all these descriptors mean and which parties they broadly apply to. Nimo

  • In case you missed it: Tom Clark has written a staggering account of how a 70-year-old man became homeless in today’s Britain. Hannah


Football | The substitute Francisco Conceição scored a stoppage-time winner as Portugal kicked off Euro 2024 with a 2-1 win against the Czech Republic.

Royal Ascot | Richard Hannon’s unshakeable faith in his colt Rosallion was rewarded with victory by a neck in the feature race on day one.

Football | Manchester City will begin their pursuit of an unprecedented fifth consecutive Premier League title away to Chelsea. The match on Sunday 18 August will pit Pep Guardiola against his former assistant Enzo Maresca, who was appointed by Chelsea after guiding Leicester to promotion.

The front pages

The Guardian splashes on “NHS will buy beds in care homes to cut hospital waits, says Labour”. Rishi Sunak is pictured taking a boat ride, and the Daily Mirror has fun: “You’re going to need a bigger vote” – the angle from which the vessel is photographed makes it look like it could be foundering by the stern. Not everyone’s keen on that photo – the Daily Mail goes with Royal Ascot and its splash is “Labour’s secret tax rise dossier” while the Times has “Starmer ‘tax threat’ to savers with a chequebook”. The Daily Express says “PM: Labour will tax your years of savings in weeks”. The Financial Times treats the election as over: “Tory hopefuls jockey for position as post-poll race to succeed Sunak looms”. “Post Office in ‘criminal conspiracy’” – that’s the Metro as the public inquiry continues. The i has carried out an investigation: “UK in secret talks over financial turmoil at IT giant that could hit benefits and NHS”. Top story in the Daily Telegraph is “Britain 20 years behind Europe on cancer care”.

Today in Focus

Germans are divided. Can Euro 2024 unite them?

Thanks to a troubled economy and gains by the far right in the European elections, Germany’s sense of identity is in the balance. Could footballing success bring the country back together? Philip Oltermann reports

Cartoon of the day | Martin Rowson

The Upside

A bit of good news to remind you that the world’s not all bad

“He was this perfect, beautiful woman,” says Andrew L Erdman. “[Female impersonation] got very normalised in the 1920s … there was a lot of gender play and openness.” The US writer is talking about the subject of his new book Beautiful: The Story of Julien Eltinge, America’s Greatest Female Impersonator. With his elaborate outfits, wigs and makeup, Eltinge wowed crowds in the 1920s, many of whom were surprised to find out that he was a man. He was combative towards people who suggested he was gay; Erdman says he was “not an easy ally”. However, Erdman believes that – at a time when drag artists have been dragged into the culture wars – Eltinge’s is a story worth telling, and one that highlights America’s long and complicated relationship with the art form. In 2024, similarly minded “gender illusionist artists” often go viral online. “They are very popular, and very, very beautiful,” he says.

Sign up here for a weekly roundup of The Upside, sent to you every Sunday

Bored at work?

And finally, the Guardian’s puzzles are here to keep you entertained throughout the day. Until tomorrow.