A CONVERSATION ABOUT SCHOOL FIELDS, CRICKET PITCHES & INEQUALITY
Updated: Jan 21, 2022
High school lunch times were a muddy affair. Largely spent on the school field. Bumpy, uneven, sometimes large areas of no grass at all. Sometimes, just simply walking around with a mate having a conversation about Football (or, Championship Manager 97/98 tactics). A lot of the time it was jumpers for goal posts. Every now and again, some tape-ball cricket, with a bin for stumps, that we'd drag across the field. No square, just find an empty field space clear of others. My school uniform trousers would get very muddy. There would be a clamour for the sinks in the boys’ toilets just before lunch ended, wet a few of those coarse green paper towels and furiously try and clean the mud off of my trousers, before the bell rang for lesson. Fridays were different. It was the end of the week so I could get as muddy as I wanted to, right? It was almost a challenge to see who could get the muddiest. Wear the mud with pride...battle scars, a rite of passage, if you will.
I could scarcely imagine not having a school field. But, this is a real possibility for many school children, today. Between 1979 and 1997, Conservative governments sold off 10,000 school playing fields[i]. That’s an average of 500 per year. More recently, since the 2010 Conservative reign began, schools have lost 2,488 grass pitches[ii], with 150 cricket pitches being lost in the process. There have been some replacements of these pitches, although not like-for-like, meaning an cumulative loss of 80 cricket pitches between the 2010 and 2019. The London Cricket Trust say the number of fine-turf wickets in London has reduced by 42% in the last 10 years[iii]. The rate at which these green spaces and facilities are being lost is alarming. Knowing that access to facilities is a highlighted issue for a lack of British South Asians getting into First Class domestic cricket, along with the costs associated to playing, you have to ask whether Government have a hand to play in this?
Francis Duku, an official from the GMB Union, said that due to budget cuts “schools are being forced to flog their playing fields to make ends meet,”[iv] (hi there, austerity!). In 2019, Boris Johnson announced a total of £14bn of investment into schools, split over 3 years. Seems like a lot of money. But, how does this impact in real terms? The Institute of Fiscal Studies[v] (IFS) states, even with the additional cash injection, “if we account for expected increases in teacher pay, the real terms increase in spending per pupil will be lower, at 6%.” However, there are areas and schools that would see a benefit, although if you look a little harder, things start to get a little muddy (like those school fields). In September 2019, the National Education Union said, that come April 2020, “just 18 out of 533 constituencies” would see real terms funding increases[vi]. What’s more is that 13 out of these 18 are Conservative-held constituencies. Suspicious? Maybe, but there’s more.
A major reason for the selling of these school fields is the building of affordable housing[vii]. How affordable this housing will be is anyone’s guess. We’ve already seen the numbers of school fields that the Conservative Governments alone have sold off. These numbers contribute to the Tories having sold six times as many playing fields than any other party[viii]. What’s that about? Looking closer, specifically at the 2019 election, 8 out of the top 20 donors that bankrolled Boris Johnson’s push for the country’s leadership were tycoons from the property or housing development sectors. To name a few[ix]…Malcolm Healey, founder of Wren Living (Wren Kitchens), along with his brother Eddie, donated £1.1m. Tony Gallagher, chairman of Gallagher Estates and Gallagher Developments, donated £1m. Steve Morgan, founder of housebuilders Redrow and Bridgemere UK, donated £1m. John Bloor, of Bloor Homes, parted with just short of a million. You get the idea…Children are losing fields and cricket pitches, through no fault of their own, just because it seems the Government owe their mates.
Whatever you want to call it, cronyism is definitely a term that can be applied. COVID-19 has lifted the lid on nepotism and cronyism, more in my lifetime than I can personally recall. Remember when it was revealed that Matt Hancock’s mate was given a contract to supply millions of vials for COVID-19 tests, even though he was just a pub owner?[x] Just recently, it was also revealed that £881m worth of contracts were given to those who donated £8m to the Conservative party. Labour MP for Coventry South, Zarah Sultana, summed it up pretty well…
COVID-19 has highlighted some serious inequalities, along with structural & systemic racism, within our society. Black and Ethnic Minority groups have been more greatly impacted by the virus than any other community. Those in deprived areas were also twice as likely to die from the virus, versus those in the least deprived areas[xi]. When a delayed report into how ethnicity affects those infected with the virus was eventually released, with a key section omitted (which would detail reasons for the disparities), eyebrows were raised. The omitted section would suggest that “historic racism” could have played a part in higher rates of COVID-19 deaths within the BAME community[xii]. Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic groups were also disproportionately fined for breaches of Covid-19 rules[xiii].
Another area of inequality that Covid-19 has shone a big, bright, light on was the unequal distribution of green space which, in this conversation, becomes even more important. Fields in Trust is an independent charity, who protect parks and green spaces. The Green Space Index, which is their guide for publicly accessible park and green space provision, revealed in May 2020 that almost 4% of Brits do not have an accessible park, or green space, within a ten-minute walk[xiv]. On top of this, data from a YouGov survey said that more than two-fifths (42%) of people from Ethnic Minorities live in England’s most green space-deprived neighbourhoods, compared with just one in five white people[xv]. So, when certain communities are already priced out of cricket and sports training facilities, where are they going to go, in order play and practice? Not anywhere nearby, that’s for sure. It’s this kind of neglect towards, and lack of care for, deprived communities and minority groups that is keeping these communities held down and in the background.
It’s fallen to charities like the London Cricket Trust to provide those without a space to play cricket with the opportunity to do so, in order to help tackle the issues at hand. Their aim is to ‘put cricket back into London’s parks’ through free-to-use cricket nets. Four cricket counties have come together, for this initiative. Essex, Kent, Middlesex and Surrey County Cricket Clubs. In turn, this can only be a good thing for accessibility and cost barriers, associated to playing cricket. But, surely we need parks and green spaces available and easily accessible for them to do their work?
It should be said though, Schools and councils can only sell playing field land if they can show that there will be no impact on their sports & curriculum needs. The money raised can be re-invested back into new facilities. Where fields are being replaced, all-weather Multi-Use Games Areas (MUGAs) are being built. I would ask, even though MUGAs give school children a replacement playing area, does it give them the same experience? Does it give them the open, green, sometimes muddy (and let’s be honest, fun) fields for lunch times and after school? Does it give them that bumpy outfield to contend with? Or, that quick outfield when chasing after a cover drive, that is destined for the boundary and requires a despairing dive? Does it give them that unpredictable pitch, ones where the odd delivery stays low, or hits the deck and takes off drawing the infamous batsman response, which often looks like they’re mimicking a plane during mid-air turbulence? Does it give them the ability to practice on, test themselves and get used to the essential conditions needed to develop an all-round game? A counter to this could be that indoor training takes away from experiencing these conditions. But, indoor training is meant to be supplement outdoor training. With all that said, I think the issue is bigger than this.
The issue, for me, is the knock-on effect of Government spending, or lack of (though this isn’t the only issue, just to make it clear to those who think I am ignoring aspects of racism and prejudice in cricket). Inequalities and systemic prejudices in our society prevent opportunity. Surely, we should all have equality of opportunity? To draw from Zarah Sultana’s tweet above, our Government works for the super-rich. Their focus and attention is on wealth, the wealthy and maximising profit, all of which results deprived communities and BAME groups being shackled. With access to playing facilities and costs associated to playing cricket being a huge barrier into cricket for British South Asians, I would argue that cronyism, back-handers, scratching of backs, systemic inequalities, institutional and structural racism all have a huge hand to play in the lack of British South Asians playing cricket. How can we expect to improve the rate of participation amongst ethnic minorities in cricket, or in sport as a whole for that matter, when the odds are quite obviously stacked against them?
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[i] https://www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/othersports/schoolsports/11092344/Is-it-game-over-for-school-playing-fields.html [ii] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/ashes-2019-school-cricket-pitches-england-conservatives-pitch-a9030451.html [iii] https://www.ifs.org.uk/publications/15025 [iv] https://www.tes.com/news/school-playing-fields-sell-criticised [v] https://www.ifs.org.uk/publications/15025 [vi] https://www.theguardian.com/education/2019/nov/09/most-schools-england-worse-off-next-year-than-2015-study-says [vii] https://www.tes.com/news/school-playing-fields-sell-criticised [viii]https://www.theguardian.com/education/2012/aug/19/tories-biggest-sellers-school-playing-fields#:~:text=Conservative%2Dled%20councils%20have%20been,a%20sporting%20legacy%20for%20children [ix] https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/top-50-political-donors-uk-2019-election-626bqsk32 [x] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/nov/26/matt-hancock-former-neighbour-won-covid-test-kit-contract-after-whatsapp-message [xi] https://www.bmj.com/content/369/bmj.m2389 [xii] https://news.sky.com/story/coronavirus-racism-has-contributed-to-covid-19s-disproportionate-impact-on-bame-community-leaked-report-shows-12005950 [xiii]https://news.sky.com/story/coronavirus-bame-groups-disproportionately-fined-for-covid-19-breaches-12037297 [xiv] https://storymaps.arcgis.com/stories/83b164ac89d14890a7004772da10ada4 [xv] https://www.theguardian.com/inequality/2020/sep/16/poorer-uk-households-have-less-access-to-green-spaces-study