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Let this moment lead to manifesto commitments on play

14 Mar

The imminent publication of a General Comment on Article 31 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child may not impress a government blinkered in its vision of a smaller state, but for the play movement it should inform a longer term campaign, argues Adrian Voce.

As we await publication of the General Comment on Article 31 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, whose adoption was announced by the UN on 1 February (and which was previewed at the National Playwork Conference earlier this month) there is a temptation to think that the delay is indicative of the low priority afforded to children’s right to play even by the very organisation which, we are given to understand, is now promoting its importance. The play movement is accustomed to fine platitudes preceding only lightweight or negligible policy announcements.

However, in this case, such suspicions are probably unjustified. Three other General Comments were adopted by the same session of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child and we must assume, therefore, that the slow move to reveal what has actually been agreed is a result of bureaucratic inertia rather than anything more cynical. Anyone who has tried to even navigate the UN’s various websites, let alone steer a detailed policy statement through its byzantine committee structure, will be aware how opaque this “government of governments” can be.

Achievement

In this light, the delay in publication only serves to highlight the achievement of the international play movement represented by IPA in reaching this point. But the interregnum also provides us with an opportunity to say how we might expect our own governments to respond to what will, after all, be an authoritative interpretation of how member states should be recognising, fulfilling and protecting the child’s right to play according to international law.

Of course, what governments should do and what we can realistically expect them to do are very different. The right to play was widely overlooked  – or at best arrived at very late – even when we had an expansive policy framework that looked beyond statutory services to universal outcomes for children. In England, certainly, an administration committed to a smaller role for the state and with an economic argument for reducing it in unprecedentedly large swathes, will not be swayed in the least by what it will regard as an over-prescriptive, theoretical wish-list. Indeed, it will be surprising if the coalition government responds at all.

One reason for this is that, since Secretary of State, Michael Gove literally tore up Every Child Matters (removing the symbolic rainbow logo on his first day in office) and cut the former Department for Children, Schools and Families back to what he sees as its core purpose of reforming schools, there has been no one in this government with play in their portfolio. Quite simply, they have nothing to say about it because they don’t believe it is their responsibility.

Not government’s responsibility?

Prime Minister, David Cameron said as much when, as leader of the opposition, he launched his party’s child policy review, More Ball Games, in 2008, and, in spite of his fine words about children needing “everyday adventures”, let slip that this was a challenge for local, not central government. The subsequent financial crash and towering national debt it produced, only consolidated the Conservatives’ view that a national Play Strategy is the last thing the country can afford. In spite of Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg’s fine speech  in 2010 about a ministerial task force to look at the issue, it was duly one of the first to follow the rainbow into the shredder labeled “deficit reduction”.

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Will the UN’s General Comment about children’s right to play help to put the play campaign in England back on track?

But just because the government of the day has turned a deaf ear, doesn’t mean the policy case for play isn’t worth making. Once the general comment is published we must seize upon it. The barrenness of the current landscape and its growing impact on local provision heightens the need for strong, clear advocacy for an alternative approach, based on international law. If this seems unrealistic, we need look no further than Wales to see that it is not.

The sufficiency duty

Whilst  local councils in Wales grapple with the practical implications of their new statutory duty to provide a “sufficiency of play opportunities“,  services in England are being decimated, play spaces closed down, iconic playgrounds demolished. The relegation of play from being flavour of the month to being most obvious candidate for cuts has been savage and has affected all levels of the sector. At times like this resistance is difficult. Many people have been made redundant, others are keeping their heads down, but the movement must regroup, restate its arguments and once again set out the policy case for children’s play provision to be an essential part of public services and the public realm.

The current  UK government may not be interested, but, for play advocates, the General Comment on article 31 of the UN Convention on the Rights should be exactly what we need to give our arguments substance and authority – making the case for play’s inclusion in the manifesto of the next one.

Adrian Voce

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