Students at the best private schools have ten times more green space than state students

Children at Britain’s top 250 private schools have more than ten times as much outdoor space as those attending state schools, an exclusive Guardian analysis can reveal.

A schoolboy paying Eton has access to 140 times more green space than the average student at an English state school, the analysis shows. Experts condemned the ‘staggering’ and ‘gross’ disparities.

The Guardian mapped the land owned and used by the country’s top private schools – an area that has never been developed before. Using publicly available information and satellite instruments to map school buildings and green space, the analysis found that:


  • The average student at one of England’s top private schools has access to around 322 square meters of green space, while the average student at a state school has access to around 32 square meters of green space: a ratio of 10:1.

  • Eton students have the largest area of ​​land of any school in the country, with the schoolboys having access to 4,445 square meters per student, an area 140 times larger than the area available to the average state school student. Some of that land is also open to the public.

  • The private school campuses include tennis courts, golf courses, boating lakes, swimming pools, riding stables, nature reserves and remote camping lodges.

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

As Britain heads to the election booths to choose between the Conservatives and the Labor Party, which has pledged to scrap the VAT exemption on independent school fees despite strong industry lobbying, the findings are a reminder of the deep divide between early experiences of children from wealthy families and the rest of the population; only 7% of children attend an independent school.

“The disparity in access to green space between independent and state schools is, while not surprising, of staggering proportions,” says Prof. Michael Marmot, director of the UCL Institute of Health Equity, and author of the groundbreaking Fair Society Healthy Lives- report from 2010. (more often called the Marmot review).

“Eton’s playing fields may be a worn-out cliché; the lack of playing fields in your local public school is an all too present reality.

As part of our Access to Green Space series, we looked at the amount of space our children have at school – and how much time they get to enjoy it. Over several months, our data team collected detailed information on the amount of land owned by England’s top private schools, then used satellite data and a range of other variables to calculate how much of this was green space accessible to pupils.

We also looked at the amount of outdoor space available to England’s state schools, and spoke to experts about some of the issues facing our children. As Tina Farr from St Ebbes primary school in Oxford told us: “We need to start running schools that are in line with healthy child development. We can give them six feeding hours a day and that is absolutely necessary.”

The Guardian analyzed all the English schools in the Heads’ Conference (HMC) – the association of the heads of Britain’s largest private day and boarding schools, which are also described as state or independent schools. It calculated the green space on campus as open space belonging to the school and located within a radius of 5 km, and therefore accessible to the students.

Winchester College, where the current Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, went to school, has the most land in total – more than 8,000 hectares – but the second most for students, as pupils only have access to around 250 hectares, according to its website, while the rest appears to be landed property. Eton’s campus covers 1,666 hectares, of which students have access to just under 1,500 hectares.

Lord Wandsworth College has the third most land, with a campus of 1,079 hectares, of which 1,027 hectares of green space is within 5km of the school.

Stonyhurst has a campus of 1,050 hectares, Stowe has 850 hectares and Radley College 847.

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

In the 2021/2022 academic year, almost 245,000 students attended these private schools, meaning each student had an average of 322 square meters of green space. This is probably a conservative estimate.

Meanwhile, according to the Ministry of Education, state schools have 263,300,000 square meters of green space and playgrounds, which equates to 32 square meters per student, a calculation based on the average number of students enrolled in state schools between 2017 and 2021 (between 8 million and 9 million per year). According to the Guardian’s calculations, this gives private school students access to ten times as much outdoor space as state school students.

The 250 members of the HMC that The Guardian looked at get the best from that country and place a strong emphasis on sports, outdoor activities and the importance of the outdoors in their curricula and sales materials. Eton tells parents of prospective students that “we believe boys learn as much, if not more, outside the classroom as they do inside.” The rugby school says its educational model is one in which “all facets of life – academic and artistic, spiritual and sporting – are part of an indivisible whole”.

However, some state schools have little or no green space at all for their students, while in those that do, budget constraints and curriculum requirements often mean that sports and other outdoor activities cannot be prioritized in the same way, experts told the Guardian.

Marmot said that 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 mortality inequality, and is also likely to on the increasing obesity in children. “A school with limited access to playing fields or open space will have much more difficulty building exercise into children’s lives,” he said.

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


Studies have shown the cognitive boost that a green environment gives to children, and a study in Belgium linked green space to higher IQs. “There is increasing evidence that a green environment is linked to our cognitive functions, such as memory skills and attention,” says Tim Nawrot, 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, said Dan Paskins, director of UK impact at Save the Children. “This new analysis from the Guardian reveals stark inequality within the school system and is something we are deeply concerned about. As a child’s right to play is upheld in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Britain signed 34 years ago, the UK Government must urgently consider how it can improve access to green spaces for schoolchildren from all economic backgrounds. sectors can improve dramatically. backgrounds.”

Dr. Sarah Clarke, president of the Royal College of Physicians, said ministers must take urgent action to increase state school pupils’ access to green space. “This research provides yet another clear example of how some in society – through no fault of their own – are literally unable to make the healthy choices that could help them live healthy lives. Everything from where we live, the food we eat to the air we breathe has a direct impact on our health – and access to outdoor spaces is no different.”

The Guardian has contacted all the private schools mentioned in this article. Those who contacted us said providing green space for less privileged children was a priority, and gave examples of how they do this, to varying degrees. Eton told us that much of their land is developed or is “open space that is enjoyed by the entire community.” Winchester says it has a wide range of community connections, including volunteer programs with a number of local schools, and also hosts a range of events within its facilities.

Lord Wandsworth College works in partnership with several local schools; Stonyhurst offers their facilities and green spaces to local families and schools, but also runs collaborative initiatives and “promotes community involvement 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 end, Stowe has created transformational partnerships with a growing network of organizations.”

Neither HMC nor the Ministry of Education commented.

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