Are you faking it? The behaviour benefits of artificial surfaces

Written by: HTU | Published:

After 20 exclusions in one year, headteacher Tom Donohoe decided upon an unlikely solution – an all-weather, artificial grass pitch. He explains its impact

Ten years ago when I arrived as headteacher at Anton Junior School, one of the first things the children pointed out to me was that they had very little to do at play-time and lunch-time.

I spent my first few months out on the playground with the children in their free time and their behaviour was less good. In my first 12 months, I excluded children on more than 20 occasions – most of these were for incidents at lunch-time.

As a deputy head, I had worked at a large primary school and we were lucky enough to have an all-weather football pitch for the children to use for games lessons, after-school clubs and at lunch and play times.

Despite having no funds and very little support from either the Football Foundation or the local authority, I was determined that the first step in our quest for improved facilities would be the installation of a small artificial grass football pitch. I applied for a number of grants, wrote to local companies and football clubs, but progress was initially slow.

However, perseverance with grant-finding often pays dividends. The major breakthrough was to achieve financial support from the Landfill Trust, which donated around £20,000. We were fortunate to meet its funding requirements, particularly being within the stipulated distance of a landfill site. After this, a couple of generous donations from local businesses and several fundraising events, including a sponsored run, quickly meant we had achieved our target figure.

Ever the optimist, I had already started meeting with representatives from companies who specialise in all-weather surfaces. This was a good move because it meant we were able to proceed quickly once the finances were secured and also because the companies had some good inside information about ways of accessing cash which helped the fundraising process.

The quotes I received for a pitch measuring 1,000 square metres varied hugely, with the main factor being whether the pitch had a concrete base or not. Based purely on cost, we made the decision to not have the tarmac foundations and chose our company (the quote was a very competitive price of around £50,000 for the installation, including rebound boards and a 10-foot fence).

After a six-week installation period during the summer holiday, our all-weather pitch was ready for use at the start of September. In that academic year we did not have a single exclusion, despite the fact that the year 6 group contained 95 per cent of the children I had excluded previously.

While this improvement in behaviour is not entirely down to the improved sports facilities, I am convinced it played a part. I have seen children eating their lunch by 12:04pm so that they could have the maximum amount of time playing football before returning to class happy at 1pm!

On a pitch our size, it is possible to have three little matches being played across the area, each with just over 300 square metres – each day there are around 75 to 80 children playing on there. Because the all-weather pitch is the area for football, it means that our large square playground is now a football free zone and we have space hoppers, velcro-gloves and balls, skipping ropes, netballs and basketballs, etc.

Another benefit has been the additional revenue it has brought into the school. A year later we added “leisure floodlights” so it could be let out in the evenings. It required planning permission and I guess if I had been a bit more switched on at the outset, I would have thought to include lights in the initial build. That said, during the winter our pitch is now hired out by groups in the local community and it brings in some very useful revenue for the school.

Ten years on and our pitch still looks brand new and this has fuelled my obsession with artificial surfaces. Four years ago we had a zip wire built in the school grounds and so that it could be used all the year round, we had artificial grass laid under it.

We also had the bark surface under our adventure play area replaced with an all-weather surface. It looks a thousand times better and because of the shock-absorbing material that was installed, it is much safer – my office staff are already reporting less play-related injuries.

If I was a new headteacher, I would always look to identify play spaces in the school grounds that could be enhanced by the addition of artificial grass. I could not be more pleased with the impact that our “fake grass” facilities have had, but I will leave you with some pupils’ comments:

“I love the all-weather. Me and my friends eat our lunch as quickly as we can so we can get as long as possible to play football on the pitch.” (Year 6 child). “The Zip Wire is my favourite thing in the whole school. I am so happy that we can go on it every day of the year, even when the weather is bad.” (Year 3 child).

• Tom Donohoe is headteacher of Anton Junior School in Hampshire.

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