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A road map for the independent Play England

17 Jun
Play England has become an independent charity seven years after its launch within NCB. Adrian Voce, the organisation’s original director, attended the inaugural general meeting in London and, at the risk of being accused of back seat driving, here offers some suggestions for the long journey ahead.

Earlier this month in London a moment passed, with little fanfare, which could yet come to signal a watershed for the play movement in England. Play England, now a registered, independent charity held it’s inaugural general meeting (although, for the time being, it still seems highly reliant on the National Children’s Bureau, it’s long-term host).

The effect of austerity on both play in England and Play England itself, meant that this event was rather less celebrated than when the project was first launched by the Children’s Play Council in 2006. Then, the Big Lottery Fund had just announced its fulsome response to the Dobson Play Review, allocating £155m to free play provision in England, including £15m to set up and run the new national body, which in turn generated a momentum that led two years later to the national Play Strategy.

Children's play needs a strong national champion

Becoming an independent charity had always been part of the vision for Play England but its rapid early growth meant that the governance arrangements had taken a back seat to the challenges of delivering the support role for, not one, but two major funding programmes. It has of course been a different story since the change of government. Although Play England has done well to secure partnership funding from both the Cabinet Office and now the Department of Health, times are harder, resources tighter. To some it has therefore seemed counter-intuitive, foolhardy even, to choose this moment to go it alone. Mergers, even closures, are much more the order of the day as the charity sector seeks to consolidate and streamline.

a strong independent national voice for play is … more important than ever.

Time will tell, and all those who care about a strong play movement in England will want it to succeed. What we can say is that a strong independent national voice for play is very necessary. Threats to provision have never been greater and the pressures on children’s own time and space to play have continued to increase. The absence of a national policy framework and central funding – along with the perennial undervaluing of play and continuing disregard of children’s voices – makes Play England’s mission more vital, more important than ever.

The inaugural meeting asked the somewhat lowly number of members attending to discuss what Play England’s big idea or long-term goal should be; it’s equivalent of Google’s “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” or JFKs “to land a man on the Moon and return him back safely to the earth before this decade is out”.

Play England knows what it wants to achieve … no one was really suggesting anything different.

Whilst always guaranteed to spark some lively exchanges within the time-honored ‘break out groups’ at a conference, this exercise seemed a little superfluous. Play England knows what it wants to achieve, and no one there was really suggesting anything different. The current mission statement says “Play England’s vision is for England to be a country where everybody can fully enjoy their right to play throughout their childhood and teenage years, as set out in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child Article 31 and the Charter for Children’s Play”. It may not be a catchphrase to inspire millions but the honing of ideas into memorable words and phrases is a job for marketing.

A much more pertinent question for play advocates is “how”? A country where all children play as much and as fully as they need to, or words to that effect, is not disputed as our ultimate shared purpose. It is the road map to that destination, however it is phrased, that should be concentrating Play England’s collective mind as it disentangles itself from its parent charity.

Here are five suggested steps on this path: principles, if you like, for the all important planning that will determine how well we realise this ambition.

1. Have clear policy objectives

If one accepts the premise, as the UN has, that play provision is a societal duty, a responsibility for our public realm, we must focus on public policy. I wrote in my last blog about a wish list for national play policy that, in 2007, I was asked to feed into a Cabinet Office review that would soon lead to the Play Strategy. We are not, unless I am mistaken, at that point. No one in this government, and probably not the next, is thinking about a Play Strategy 2, much less the full adoption into UK law of our obligations under Article 31 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which implies comprehensive legislation and budget allocations for play. But this doesn’t mean that the play movement should not be preparing its policy asks. It should; and studying the experiment in Wales, where the statutory play sufficiency duty on local authorities has had its first objective analysis (by the University of Gloucestershire), would be a good place to begin. We should develop policy asks (and cost them) based on the evidence available and review them as new evidence emerges.

2. Be strategic

As much as we need to know what we want from a future government, we need to work towards creating an environment where it cares what we want. As a national body, standing for the universal enjoyment of a human right by 11 million or so children, Play England should be asking itself what it can do to have the greatest impact on the greatest number of children. Given its reduced resources, it must therefore be highly strategic. For a national body of limited capacity to have meaningful impact it should ruthlessly steer clear of involving itself in local or regional delivery, unless there is evidence to be gained from it that no one else can acquire. Otherwise, we are arbitrarily benefiting some children over others when we should be focusing on what we can do that will benefit them all.

3. Articulate the problem and the solution

As I wrote in a previous blog, policy tends to respond to pressing and visible problems rather than to altruistic visions (or even international obligations on human rights). To be pressing and visible in political terms means being in the public eye, being of concern to voters. This takes sustained coverage, not just of the issue but also of the problem – and the solution. It is not enough to spread the word about the importance of play (outdoor or otherwise) without highlighting the need for and the type of changes we want to see.

4. Marshall the evidence

To argue for it being a policy priority, we need to discover more evidence of children’s play deficiency and its effects. This needs to be thorough, long-term and credible. And, sad to say, it should probably analyse the economic implications of action against inaction. It will not be cheap. Cost benefit analyses, especially of something as hard to compartmentalize as play, are complex. But there are universities who would be interested in this work and funders who would like to support it. We should be putting them together. Or perhaps even make this the one policy ask that we present to the government now. The campaign to decriminalize drugs has made the government funding of such a study the object of its on-line petition; the unarguable logic being that when presented with evidence that it has itself commissioned, the government is more likely to act (that’s the theory anyway…)

5. Speak with authority

Any organisation setting out or holding itself up to be the national body for a particular cause, sector or movement, will always run the risk of being decried by those it would speak for, who disavow it as not representing them at all. It goes with the territory. But it is nevertheless imperative for the organisation to engage fully and openly with all its constituents, not to keep them happy but to be as fully informed as it can be: to be able to articulate positions and aims that have the genuine support of a national movement. In a field like ours, this means academia, trainers and practitioners. Small local providers and play associations as much as big employers, public institutions and other nationals need to be fully engaged with, listened and responded to.

If it does this well, the new Play England will speak with authority. If it does each of these things well, it will articulate to the English public and its leaders a profound need within our society, and a solution for how best to meet it.

Then the journey will have been one worth making.

Adrian Voce

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