In doing what it can to survive difficult times, the play movement must not lower its sights to accept inadequate government policy, writes Adrian Voce
Six years ago this June a process began which culminated in me being asked, as the Director of Play England, by a Cabinet Office official for a list of the most important things that the Government could do for children’s play. This was one of those rare moments, as scarcely believable looking back on it as it seemed at the time. Soon after, the same official asked how much it would all cost, at which point even the fiercest self-pinching could not dispel the notion that I was in dreamland.
For several years (we) had been making the case for a national play strategy
For several years, those of us involved in campaigning for government action on play had been making the case for a national play strategy, with ring-fenced funding for provision. We also wanted a central policy unit to develop and implement the cross-cutting changes in planning, policing and traffic as well as education and childcare that we knew were necessary to dismantle the many barriers to children’s freedom to play outside.
For just as many years, these demands had been made to seem like a fantastical wish-list, not just by a government which equated the “enjoy” part of “enjoy and achieve” – one of the five universal outcomes for its Every Child Matters policy – with children being happy at school, but by some of our supposed allies in the more established children’s sector who made it clear they saw our earlier “day in the sun” – the £155m Children’s Play lottery programme – as a more than ample dispensation.
Brown talked about “engaging parents…to find the best balance between care, education and play”
In June 2007 this all changed. Two years before achieving his long-held ambition to succeed Tony Blair as Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, in the run up to the 2005 election, had declared Labour’s next term as being one that would put children first. Nothing especially new or hopeful for play advocates there, but, writing in The Guardian in January 2005, Brown talked about “engaging parents…to find the best balance between care, education and play”. This was a distinct shift from the long-running mantra of “education; education; education”.
There are no accidental words in such political writings and, sure enough, there followed the first ever manifesto pledge on children’s play. It was vague enough to not amount to much more than the lottery funding already promised, but was an all-important wedge, allowing us to engage in a new level of policy dialogue once Labour was reelected.
What happened in the three years that followed Brown’s succession in 2007 is history; and by most reckonings a calamitous one, culminating in May 2010 with Labour’s defeat after 13 years in power. But Brown’s short, ill-fated administration began very differently, with a renewed optimism sweeping through the government ranks as he set about renewing the New Labour project from the vantage point of initially commanding poll ratings.
It was in this first flush of Prime Minister Brown’s ascendancy, over the summer of 2007, that we seized the opportunity represented by the manifesto pledge (which we knew had come from his camp) to press the case for a national play strategy, duly announced by Brown’s leading ally and now Children’s Secretary, Ed Balls, that December.
It was, of course, during the time from June to December 2007 that I was asked those £225m questions (and it would be naïve to imagine we were the only ones being asked: my wish-list certainly didn’t allocate nearly £200m to fixed equipment playgrounds). This was part of an intense, almost daily dialogue with a small number of officials charged with drafting what was to be the new Children’s Plan, an ambitious 10 year strategy, building on the progress of Every Child Matters, “to make England the best place in the world to grow up”. For the first time ever – and possibly anywhere – space and opportunity for play was to be at the heart of the new vision.
today’s play policy, if it exists at all, seems to be a minor adjunct to the coalition government’s aim to mobilise armies of volunteers to deliver what used to be public services
Currently, there would appear to be next to no chance of any of the main parties asking the play sector what it wants from a major policy initiative. Far from a ten-year play strategy, primed with nearly £400m of lottery and treasury money, today’s play policy, if it exists at all, seems to be a minor adjunct to the coalition government’s aim to mobilise armies of volunteers to deliver what used to be public services.
Yet the context for developing a new case for national play policy is in some ways now more helpful than it was in 2007. The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child has issued a General Comment, expanding upon article 31 of its Convention on the Rights of the Child, to explicitly call on governments to introduce legislation and allocate budgets “to respect, fulfil, and protect the right to play”. Our nearest neighbour, Wales, is already there, with its play sufficiency duty being described in an independent analysis by the University of Gloucestershire as a “bold step into what is potentially a new landscape for government understanding about children’s play”.
More immediate factors – economic and political ones – are, of course, profoundly unfavourable. The pervading view that austerity means not just cutting back spending on play, but in many areas cutting it out altogether, is so insidious that we almost seem to have come to accept it ourselves.
A pragmatic acceptance of the need to protect whatever capacity we can within the current climate is not mutually exclusive to campaigning for a more helpful one
It is true that we are a long way from receiving a credible hearing for a new wish list of the kind we presented in 2007, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be developing one. A pragmatic acceptance of the need to provide support, to build and protect whatever capacity we can within the current climate of cuts and closures, is not mutually exclusive to marshalling the evidence and growing the campaign for a more helpful one. The case for a national play strategy was first seriously articulated some six years before Ed Balls’ announcement that December. We had made the case, but it took all of that time to win the argument.
It may be that this government is not listening to anything that can’t help in its mission to save money and shrink the role of the state. But we are only two years away from a general election, which no one other than government spin-doctors (and not even all of them) is predicting either coalition partner will win. Meanwhile, there are serious and influential voices on the Labour side calling for a proper alternative to austerity. And Ed Balls is now the Shadow Chancellor.
These are the voices we should be engaging with. There is all to play for.