Archive | October, 2012

Can we act outside our silos?

29 Oct



Six years ago I wrote a piece for Sutcliffe Playback just after the BIG Lottery funding of £155m for England was announced pointing out the dangers of the increased funding causing each of us to fight for our share rather than ensure a fair distribution, shared according to a mutually accepted rationale.


In retrospect I think we did a remarkably good job in containing our frustrations and allowing a diversity of funding that has enhanced the whole of the play sector to the benefit of children across England. Quite apart from producing the Design Guide and Managing Risk in Play Provision: implementation guide, both of which I think were globally cutting edge. Add to this the developing awareness of the importance of play in the other three nations and we have a golden age!


Little did I think that six years later I would be returning to the same theme in completely different circumstances. Normally one might expect that adversity would bring factions of a sector together to speak with one strengthened voice, but, sadly, in the field of play I feel that we are in danger of hunkering down into our old default bunkers and struggling over the scraps that fall from the political table.


Of course a lot has happened over the past six years and perhaps in this context the most significant development has been the strengthening of devolution to the four individual nations, each with devolved responsibility for play. But that is not the only influence that might have affedcted attitudes today. Another is a reaction to the wealth and authority that flowed into and from Play England during those years. The problem here was that the workload created by this wealth isolated them at times from the rest of the field. This was not helped, in my view, by what some felt was the coercive and arrogant way in which they exercised their influence; the sector, now free from that influence, have in places reacted by returning to default and for me none of this benefits the children we aspire to serve.


For example I have noticed that we are sadly building more and more playgrounds with fences and rubber carpets. And then there is the anti-standards lobby, or am I misreading this? I was at a meeting the other day when Playlink and the Play Safety Forum were spoken of antagonistically as one body!


Add to this the differences between the four Nations. I have my concerns here as well. A couple of years ago there was undoubtedly considerable antagonism between Play England and the other three and I personally have always had a sense that Play England have been reluctant partners in the Children’s Play Policy Forum. When they were rich and powerful acting with a sympathetic government, this did not matter, but now it does. They are all at different places with their own internal politics and no doubt England has the least sympathetic Government with which to deal.


The Association of Play Industries is another interesting case in point. They have financially supported the Children’s Play Information Service for the past year and are currently being requested to give support into the future, but the tensions continue between them and the more idealistic end of the sector, yet both depend on each other. Together they could be so much more than apart, but are we listening to each other? Or lecturing?

So, enough examples (and I could go on), what is to be done?


Essentially I suppose what we have to do is to talk to each other and listen and we have to do this honestly and try to do it without prejudice. The manifestations of play are many and varied, there are places and values for all of them, just as there are for all the different sources and providers. Surely from a child’s perspective the more varied and alternative the opportunities, the richer and valuable will be their childhood.


I sympathise with the wish to develop more opportunities for children to play in nature, with greater opportunities to take and manage risk and with the wonderful experiences offered by playworkers and adventure playgrounds. Would we have developed and invested in Snug if this was not the case? This is important to me personally, all these things are pushing the boundaries, the place I love to be, but we must also respect the need and value of the conventional places as well.


So I believe we must talk, listen and respect, perhaps even sympathise with each other.  And perhaps one place to begin would be the Children’s Play Policy Forum (CPPF) and just to show how old I am I will now give a little history lesson (press delete here!! Or just skip the next paragraph!) as I think it is relevant to today’s situation and some of you will n ot have been in the sector in the days when the CPPF was formed.


The Forum was established by Fields in Trust (then the National Play Playing Fields Association so no wonder it was treated with suspicion by some), following a report by George Torkildsen, which they had commissioned. It was set up with representative of all the National Agencies and organisations with an interest in play. The CPPF then started to engage with the then Conservative Government, who had previously wound up the National Children’s Play and Recreation Unit and no policy for play or funding. The result of these conversations was the creation of the four Contracts for Policy, Information, Safety and Training, which were inherited by the incoming Labour Government. It was then through the CPPF that a conversation developed with Chris Smith, which resulted in the publication of Best Play by the NPFA as a partnership project with the Children’s Play Council (CPC) and Playlink (which at that time was a charity advising adventure playgrounds) setting out the reasons why play was so important. This in turn led to the famous promise from Chris Smith of £200 million for play. Tim Gill, Director of CPC, was seconded to the Department of the Deputy Prime Minister to write their policy document on play suggesting how this money should be spent. CPC by this time were also responsible for the three of the four contracts. As this progressed and dialogue with Government increased, the need for the CPPF decreased, becoming simply a talking shop to keep each other up to date and compare notes.


However, in the current political environment I think the role of the CPPF has once again become vital to engage once more and speak for the sector with Government. To do this the sector as a whole across the UK must identify the issues that are common to all, the objectives that are shared so that we can be seen to be speaking in harmony and not in discord. The objectives for children must be very similar, although the way these are played out within the sector will be different, both geographically and functionally.


Having identified them we must agree strategically on the actions we will all take, together and separately to achieve them. This is an ambitious proposal, but all the better for that. To achieve it we really must speak, listen, respect and sympathise with each other and then agree on the appropriate way to engage with the relevant bodies to persuade them of our cause. It is more important now than it was six year ago when I wrote my last little plea. The Sector is suffering and with it our children, our society and our future.