Pupils at Sandbach High School have been protesting outside Westfields, the headquarters of Cheshire East Council, this week after an ongoing dispute between their school and Everybody Sport and Recreation (ESAR) has left them unable to use sports and drama facilities.
Sandbach High School and Sandbach Leisure Centre are based at the same site, on Middlewich Road, however the operation of sports facilities is operated by the charitable trust which was spun off from Cheshire East Council’s leisure services department in 2014.
Sandbach High School pays the trust £9,000 per year for use of the facilities (including sports hall, drama studio, fitness area, a classroom and the swimming pool) between 8.30am and 5pm during school term time.
In January this year, Cheshire East Council installed magnetic locking doors at entrances to the leisure facilities onsite, preventing access to pupils and teachers without leisure centre staff releasing the doors with a key card.
This caused difficulties for PE staff (who weren’t given their own access cards) and meant disruption to PE lessons.
As well as this, school staff were denied a request for permission to have a fire door opened to allow ventilation to the sports hall, with one pupil fainting as a result of the soaring temperatures over the summer months.
As a result of the risk to pupils’ wellbeing, the decision was made to suspend use of the sports facilities and Sandbach High School has not held any lessons in either the sports hall or drama studio since school returned this September.
A letter from the school’s parent council noted: “This issue seems completely at a deadlock with the Everybody Trust and the relationship with the school seems to have broken down completely.”
It adds: “[Sandbach High School headteacher] Mr Leigh has consulted with the school’s legal team and they have advised Mr Leigh should not under the current circumstances allow use of the sports hall.”
The letter highlights that the ongoing dispute affects over 1,400 youngsters, and is having a detrimental impact on the teaching of PE lessons, including GCSE and A Level lessons.
It criticises ESAR for limiting access to the sports facilities at “a time when we are all supposed to be encouraging our children to become more active”.
The letter goes on to call for a boycott of Sandbach Leisure Centre by its members until the situation is resolved.
In a statement, ESAR told us: “Everybody Sport and Recreation is an [sic] registered independent charity which operates Sandbach Leisure Centre and 14 other facilities on behalf of Cheshire East Council.
“We have not received any bookings for any of the joint use facilities from Sandbach High School from September 2019, the deadline for this, set by the school’s adjudicator, is 30th June each year and we have not had any notification from the school about the intentions for any of the facilities.
“The headteacher banned school use of the leisure centre at the end of summer term claiming the facility is unsafe.
“This was despite advice to the contrary from Cheshire Fire & Rescue Service, the Health & Safety Executive and now NASUWT.
“We have offered the school the sports hall and the drama room for bookings between 9am to 12pm and again between 1.15pm to 3.15pm, each weekday during term times.
“Hoping that this will satisfy the schools curriculum needs and the lesson times they already had planned.
“We are still awaiting confirmation from the school, should they review their safety claims and decide that they do require some use of these areas.
“They have been asked to let us know as soon as possible. We look forward to hearing from the school so we can provide their pupils use of our sports and drama facilities.”
A spokesperson for Cheshire East Council said: “Our understanding is that the school is free to book Sandbach Leisure Centre facilities with ESAR on the understanding that, in doing so, they agree that there are no safety issues.
“A number of independent safety inspections have been carried out by organisations including the Health and Safety Executive and Cheshire Fire and Rescue Service.
“Cheshire East Council is satisfied that no safety concerns have been identified by these inspections. The council’s chief concern here is for the safety of pupils.”