According to CABE (Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment), car parking for teachers and visitors dominates many proposals, while play areas are often uninspiring and do not recognise the varying needs and ages of different pupils.
Some grounds are designed to face north, while others would become narrow wind tunnels.
By contrast, CABE believes that good school grounds should provide attractive space for socialising, exercising and learning.
When properly designed, the grounds can enhance the quality of the whole school environment for relatively little cost, according to the Government design adviser.
CABE has now published six best practice case studies on school grounds. They include the American School in London, where extensive consultation with staff and students has led to well-designed outdoor spaces which include a rock wall, an allotment and seating areas to hold classes.
Speaking at yesterday's (23 March) Learning through Landscapes conference, CABE chief executive Richard Simmons said: "If some of the designs that we are seeing are built out then teachers and pupils face the prospect of spending playtime in the car park.
"A school is judged by the whole site and not just the buildings, but many school grounds display a failure of imagination."
School grounds are one of the 10 criteria used by CABE to assess design quality in the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme.