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Segregated play space is an abuse of children’s rights

28 Mar

‘She seems genuinely impressed when she hears about the freedom and control that children have here, and especially at the sense of community and social connection they exhibit: that this is their place, of which they are immensely proud. Before she moves on, The Princess Royal turns to me and says that these children, from the ‘deprived’ social housing estates in the looming shadow of Waterloo Station, seem to be enjoying the kind of childhood that many supposedly better-off children would relish’.

From Policy for Play, responding to children’s forgotten right
Adrian Voce (Policy Press, 2015)

Writing in the Guardian this week, Harriet Grant reports on what can only be described as a form of social apartheid, in the design of a small housing estate in London. The article relates how, in a new mixed development on the site of the old Lilian Baylis School in SE1, North Lambeth, children living in social housing are excluded from the supposedly ‘communal’ play areas, where access is exclusive to those from the privately-owned units.

The article has caused a media furore, with everyone from the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, to the Communities Secretary, James Brokenshire, decrying what architect Dinah Bornat, an expert on child-friendly housing, has called a shameful abuse of the planning process. Victoria Derbyshire’s daytime TV programme featured mums from each part of the estate, united in wanting all their children to be able to play together equally.

As of lunchtime today, the BBC was reporting that Henley Housing, the developer, has said it ‘has no objection to residents in the social housing estate accessing all the play areas’; it was ‘leading the way’ to find a ‘workable solution’. This was later confirmed by Grant in a follow-up to her Guardian story. The BBC reported that Warwick Estates, who manage the private part of the estate, however, are making no comment.

If they each think it’s wrong, who is responsible?

It is striking from Grant’s original piece how a variety of key players (no pun intended) – the designer, the developer, the council, the Mayor and the government – seem to agree (in the glare of media scrutiny anyway) that this segregation of children’s play space by home-ownership status is wrong. And yet there it is. If they each think it’s wrong, who is responsible? Dinah Bornat says she is still trying to get to the bottom of it. There has even been talk of a possible legal challenge by some housing law specialists and children’s rights advocacy groups.

My correspondence, going back to June last year, from one of the parents at Baylis Old School, reveals that the segregation of the play area is in fact only the latest instalment in a running battle at this site, between residents who understood from the marketing that they were moving into a genuinely child-friendly development, and the estate managers, for whom children’s play of any stripe seems to have been largely conceived as a nuisance to be policed.

Whether or not a ‘workable solution’ can be found for the Baylis Old School development (now it is in the media spotlight), the wider questions are: how common is this, and how can it be prevented? How can children’s right to play together in the common spaces of their immediate neighbourhoods – a feature of childhood as ancient as society itself, and believed by scientists to be a key to our evolution as a species – be better protected? Is this not a failure of public policy, wherein children’s right to play receives scant recognition, and no support, in defiance of various UN reports criticising the government for its dereliction?

I want to suggest four distinct policy measures that would make such an occurrence ­– and the wider disregard for children’s rights in public space –much less likely in the future.

1.Reform national planning policy

As the retreat of children from public space became a growing cause of concern through the 90s and 2000s, so the need for a greater role for planning policy to provide guidance on children’s play space became more and more accepted, with major planning documents such as the first London Plan and the government’s National Planning Policy Guidance 17 on Recreational Space, each highlighting the need for planners and developers to include children’s play within the overall concept and masterplan for any residential development.

At the time of the change of government in 2010, Play England had been commissioned to produce specific planning guidance that was to have been published by the Department for Communities and Local Government. It never saw the light of day and, as everyone now knows, the entire suite of national planning policy documents was soon torn up and replaced by one slim volume. It seems clear that The National Planning Policy Framework is only fit for purpose if that purpose is to allow the concept and design of the public realm to be led by developers. Brought in at a time of perceived crisis for the economy, it is now surely time for a review.

2. Reinstate children’s play as a matter of government policy

Would Lambeth council have allowed the developer at the Baylis Old School site to alter the plans and create a segregated play area if children’s play had been higher on their political radar? Perhaps, but, it would have been less likely. When there was a Secretary of State for Children, with a serious national play policy, including a 10-year strategy and a £390m funding programme (including £155m of lottery money), local authorities were required to have a current local play strategy and play partnership, based squarely on principles and understandings about children’s right to play. Children’s play in England since 2010 has all but disappeared from the policy agenda other than as a tool for early learning and will continue to be neglected by cash-strapped local authorities until there is again some national leadership on the issue.

3. Adopt the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child into UK Law

It has been both heartening and a bit depressing to see the parents from both sides of this unwanted divide citing children’s right to play equally, as per the UNCRC, in their campaign to end this terrible practice. Heartening, because we are often told there is not much appetite for children’s rights among the British public; the outpouring of sympathy for these children, and the stance of their parents suggests otherwise. Depressing because because the UK, (or, more particularly, the UK government, and therefore England) is one of the more reluctant signatories to the convention. The UK is one of the very few developed-world governments not to have adopted the convention into national legislation, ranked a lowly 187th by the Kids Rights Index which monitors the degree of integration of children’s rights into national policy and legislation. This is why finding a viable legal challenge to this shameful decision may be harder than it ought to be.

4. Designate London and other conurbations Child Friendly Cities

The UN’s Habitat conferences of the 90s highlighted the particular threats to the wellbeing of children and young people by increasing urbanisation, population growth and poor long-term planning by municipal government. UNICEF’s Child Friendly Cities Initiative is designed to ensure that local authorities, regardless of national government policy, fully adopt and implement the UNCRC within all relevant policies and processes. Very few British councils have signed up for the UNICEF initiative – many citing austerity and the cost of the programme – but some, like Bristol, have nevertheless declared their commitment to being a child friendly city and are developing plans and strategies accordingly. A child-friendly city is not just a city where child-friendly design principles are more widely adopted, but one where, as a cornerstone of the children’s rights ethos, these principles are applied equally to all children. 15 years after City Hall hosted the second international child-friendly city conference, Sadiq Khan should formally commit the capital to becoming a recognised Child Friendly City. His current London Plan revision is the perfect opportunity.


As a playworker in the 1980s, I had the privilege of working at an adventure playground in the same part of London as the Baylis Old School development. Like all such places (now sadly diminishing in number), it had its own unique character and culture, reflecting that of the local children who used it. One abiding memory is of how proud they were, not just of the playground (which they helped to build), but of their ‘manor’: the social housing estates in the shadow of Waterloo Station. Applying for grants for our project from the various funding programmes for deprived inner-city areas was frequently met with their scorn. “We’re not deprived; this ain’t a deprived area. Flaming cheek!’ would be one of the more printable reactions. As my story of the visit by our patron Princess Anne relates, there was support for this view from some unlikely sources.

Whatever else was going on in their lives, in one very important regard these children were indeed far from deprived. The adventure playground, and the wider public spaces surrounding it, were theirs to explore from an early age. With no gardens of their own, children from as young as 4-5 would be outside on a daily basis, in groups of siblings and friends – playing, making friends, getting up to mischief, growing up. The adventure playground was their place, but in those (pre-childcare registration) days of open-access, ‘drop-in-drop-out’ attendance, the wider public space of their estates was also their domain.

These kids, like so many who grew up before the outdoor world had become a no-go area for them, had the richest of play lives: meaning they grew up learning the physical and social competence, self-confidence and resourcefulness that only comes from having time and space to play, away from adult direction, structures and rules; immersing themselves, daily, in their own culture and society; making decisions and taking risks for themselves. In so doing they also developed the ‘place attachment’ so important to identity and citizenship.

Like the parents at Baylis Old School today, the adults in the lives of those children in the North Lambeth of the 1980s – indeed society as a whole, even if by a kind of benign neglect – understood the importance of their right to play, and that this right was for every child, regardless of where they live.

Adrian Voce
Image: Marc Rusines

Adrian Voce is the current President of the European Network for Child Friendly Cities. He is a trustee of the Playwork Foundation and an associate board member of Playing Out. His book, Policy for Play was published in 2015.

This article was first published by the Playwork Foundation

It was originally entitled: THE RIGHT TO PLAY IS FOR EVERY CHILD, REGARDLESS OF WHERE THEY LIVE.

This UN report is an indictment of a government that doesn’t care – but also an opportunity for play advocates

14 Jun

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The UN’s latest report on the UK government’s record on children’s rights includes some stringent conclusions about the abandonment of play policy. If play advocates can seize the moment, suggests Adrian Voce, it also provides the basis for a persuasive influencing campaign to restore children’s right to play as a national priority.

The concluding observations of last week’s report by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, on the UK’s recent record on children’s rights, has been welcomed by Theresa Casey, the President of the International Play Association (IPA) as ‘the strongest I’ve seen’ on children’s right to play.

This is perhaps no cause for celebration among play advocates. The CRC’s ‘concern about the withdrawal of a play policy in England and the under-funding of play’ across the UK, merely confirms what we know about the woefully inadequate, not to say destructive response of the UK government since 2010, to a human right for children that the CRC says ‘is fundamental to the quality of childhood, to children’s entitlement to optimum development, to the promotion of resilience and to the realisation of other rights’.

The Children’s Rights Alliance for England went on to observe that, since 2010, the government had in fact ‘undermined children’s rights under Article 31 …’

The dismissive approach of the Coalition and Conservative governments of David Cameron, to article 31 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which commits states parties to support and provide for the fulfilment of the right to play, was highlighted by the independent NGO, the Children’s Rights Alliance for England (CRAE) last year. Its civil society report to the CRC on the UK government’s record on children’s rights pulled no punches when it came to play, saying: ‘Rest, leisure and play have been a casualty of the austerity drive. In the absence of a national play policy, many councils have disproportionately targeted play services for cuts with many long-standing services and projects closed and the land redeveloped’.

The CRAE report went on to observe that, since 2010, the government had in fact ‘undermined children’s rights under Article 31 by: abandoning a ten-year national play strategy for England with eight years still to run; cancelling all national play contracts … (and) withdrawing recognition of playwork in out-of-school care…’

Play policy since 2010 has been all downhill

Play policy since 2010 has been all downhill

Many observers of the work of the CRC over the years have been disappointed at its lack of rigour in holding governments to account for article 31, but the committee’s publication in 2013, of a general comment[1] on the ‘right to rest, leisure, play, recreational activities, cultural life and the arts’ appears to have raised the bar, further vindicating the work of Theresa and her colleagues at IPA in lobbying the UN to produce the document.

UN expects national governments to honour its obligations to ‘respect, protect and fulfil’ children’s right to play

The General Comment (GC17) on article 31 expands on government responsibilities for children’s play under the 1989 convention, urging them ‘to elaborate measures to ensure’ its full implementation. GC17 makes it clear that, in the face of increasing barriers, the UN expects national governments to honour their obligations to ‘respect, protect and fulfil’ children’s right to play by taking serious and concerted action on a range of fronts including, in particular, ‘legislation, planning and funding’. Last week’s report simply highlights what we already know: that the UK government, having been among the world leaders in national play policy before 2010, has since been in abject dereliction of this duty.

While we take no pleasure in this confirmation of the steep decline in the status and priority afforded to children’s play within national policy, we should, nevertheless, see the UNCRC’s report as both an opportunity and a reminder. The opportunity is to fashion an influencing campaign, aligned to the wider advocacy movement for children’s rights in the UK, to persuade future governments to recommit to children’s play. Unsurprisingly, the CRC is critical of the UK record on children’s rights in other areas than play. Its main recommendation is that a broad national children’s rights strategy, abandoned by the coalition government in 2010, should be ‘revised … to cover all areas of the convention and ensure its full implementation’. In England, this plan included a 10-year national play strategy. The play movement should be building links with other children’s rights advocates – who will now use the CRC’s report to put pressure on policymakers – to ensure that the right to play is properly considered in any such revision.

There has been a tendency, since the demise of the Play Strategy, in England at least, to lower our ambition for play policy

The reminder delivered by the CRC report is that children’s play is a serious, crosscutting policy issue, requiring a strategic response and high-level leadership. There has been a tendency, since the demise of the Play Strategy, in England at least, to lower our ambition for play policy. The Children’s Play Policy Forum, for example, has seemed to level its proposals at an agenda that disregards play for its own sake, relegating it to the level of an activity with only instrumental value to such existing policy areas as improving children’s health, reducing neighbourhood conflict or encouraging volunteering.

Good public play provision and playable public space can contribute to all these things of course, but the UN reminded us last week that our government has a duty to legislate, plan and budget for children’s play, first and foremost because it is their human right. Such an approach will most likely fall on deaf ears, as does so much else with this government, committed as it is to relentlessly scaling back public services and privatising the public realm. Our duty in this case is to point out its failure, and to cultivate support from policymakers outside the government.

An All Party Parliamentary Group, the Children’s Rights Alliance for England, the Children’s Commissioner for England, the Leader of the Opposition and now the United Nations have all recently called for a higher priority to be afforded to children’s play by our local and national governments – many of them urging the UK government to emulate that of Wales in adopting a play sufficiency duty on local authorities.

The Play England board earlier this year sanctioned an open, independent debate about its future role and purpose. Sadly, it seems to no longer have the resources even to manage its own consultations; but if it only does one thing between now and the next general election, this must surely be to cultivate and capitalise on such support in high places and coordinate a cohesive, sustained influencing campaign for play to be once again afforded the status it needs within government policy.

Adrian Voce

[1] A UN General Comment is defined as ‘the interpretation of the provisions of (its) respective human rights treaty’ by its treaty bodies. In other words, it is the UN ’s own interpretation of how nation states should meet their obligations under international law.

UN slams UK Government for lack of policy, planning and investment in play

10 Jun

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The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) is highly critical of the UK Government’s recent record on children’s play, in a new report published this week.

The advance (unedited) report of the CRC’s concluding observations on the fifth periodic report of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland on children’s rights, says that the committee is ‘concerned about the withdrawal of a play policy in England, and the under-funding of play…’ across the UK.

The report contains praise for the Welsh government’s introduction of a statutory play sufficiency duty, saying that the committee ‘welcomes the initiative of Wales to adopt play policy and integrate children’s right to play in legislation.

The CRC report notes that there are ‘insufficient places and facilities for play and leisure for children … as well as public space for adolescents to socialize’ and calls on both the UK Government and the devolved administrations to do much more to adopt the measures set out in its general comment No 17 (2013) on Article 31 of the UNCRC, to: –

‘(a) Strengthen its efforts to guarantee the right of the child to rest and leisure and to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child, including by adopting and implementing play and leisure policies with sufficient and sustainable resources;

(b) Provide children safe, accessible, inclusive and smoking-free spaces for play and socialization and public transport to access such spaces;

(c) Fully involve children in planning, designing and monitoring the implementation of play policies and activities relevant to play and leisure, at community, local and national levels’.

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In general, the CRC report criticises the UK government for not taking forward the 2009 UK-wide strategy on children’s rights, Working together, achieving more, which it says should be ‘revised … to cover all areas of the convention and ensure its full implementation’. In England, this plan included a 10-year national play strategy, abandoned by the coalition government in 2010, with the subsequent removal of play policy from ministerial responsibilities.

Adrian Voce

 

Policy for children’s play is crucial – and not just for better health

29 Jan

Published yesterday on the LSE’s policy and politics blog:

Children’s play is a subject that has all but disappeared from the policy agenda since 2010 – other than as a target for cuts and privatisation. Yet the last Labour government led the world by introducing a 12-year Play Strategy for England: an issue that Jeremy Corbyn seems keen to resurrect. A new book by Adrian Voce OBE, describes the policy, what it achieved, and why a new version of it is badly needed. Policy for Play, he argues, should be a priority for the government, not just as part of its anti-obesity programme, but as an integral part of supporting good childhoods.

The forthcoming National Obesity Framework, long promised by Downing Street to address the ever-growing health problems arising from poor diets and inadequate exercise, has prompted the All Party Parliamentary Group on A Fit and Healthy Childhood to publish its own report of the same title. Key among the cross-party proposals is a greater accent on children’s informal activity. This would mean making a much bigger priority of their need for time and space to play – freely, in the common spaces and places of a child-friendly public realm. In 2014, the parliamentary group, co-chaired by the former children’s TV presenter, Baroness Floella Benjamin, called for children’s play to be reinstated as a ministerial responsibility and for a new national play strategy to be developed that should include a statutory duty on local authorities to make sufficient provision for play, as is now the case in Wales.

Given the subject’s previous absence from national debate since the Coalition Government abandoned Labour’s national Play Strategy for England in 2010 – after only two of its planned 10 years – the proposal received a surprisingly diverse array of endorsements. The Children’s Rights Alliance for England proposed that ‘policy and strategy for children’s play and recreation should be reinstated as a ministerial responsibility’, and that ‘sufficient provision for play should be made a statutory duty for local authorities in England’. The new Children’s Commissioner, Anne Longfield promised: ‘over the next five years I will be ambitious in helping children to develop their independence and freedom through play…’play strategy

Perhaps most surprisingly, the soon-to-be Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn agreed, writing an opinion piece in the Sunday People to highlight his support for the parliamentary report and condemn the Conservative government for its “tough choice” to prioritise corporation and inheritance tax cuts over funding for local authorities’  ‘maintenance or improvements to play areas’.

It is true that local play budgets have been drastically reduced since 2010, when Michael Gove’s restructured Department for Education (no longer Children, Schools and Families) sacrificed most of its extra-curricular programmes to shore up the schools’ budget and still contribute to ‘deficit reduction’. The 12-year Play Strategy(2008) was abandoned and Nick Clegg’s promise of a new Coalition policy for play came to nothing.

The abandonment of national policy – and the £400m of central funding, since 2006, that underpinned it – saw play provision become a disproportionate victim of austerity.  A report by the Children’s Rights Alliance for England (CRAE, 2014) found that across the 32 local authorities (of 152 approached) able to comply with a Freedom of Information request on play budgets, there had been an overall reduction of 54 per cent between the years 2008-9 and 2014-15. This figure is thought to be widely under-representative of the true picture, with many of the authorities failing to comply because there was no longer even an officer with responsibility for play. Many play services and play areas have consequently been closed or privatised, such as in Battersea Park on the south bank of the Thames, where children wanting to climb and swing in a place that was, for more than forty years, an iconic open-access adventure playground, now have to pay between £18 – £33 a session for the privilege.

Yet the Play Strategy was always about more than improving and expanding playgrounds. The bigger challenge was to reverse the modern trend of the ‘battery-reared’ childhood: children confined to their homes, or to structured, managed activities, as the outdoor world becomes increasingly out-of-bounds to them; and formal education concerns itself almost exclusively with their future employability. These phenomena are not the result of inadequate or insufficient playgrounds, but the conflation of a number of long-term changes both to public space and how it is perceived, and to childhood itself, constructed by political discourse and shaped by public policy. Those who applauded New Labour’s ambitions for a more child-friendly, ‘playable’ public realm – and are now calling for children’s play to be revisited as a policy theme – are as concerned that these deeper issues be re-joined as they are that local playgrounds should be better supported against closure.

The ‘licence to roam’ and play as a human right

policy-for-play-finalChildren’s play is recognised as a human right by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) and the UN expanded on what this implies for policy in 2013, when it issued a General Comment calling on governments to elaborate their plans for legislating, planning and funding to provide for it.

Pragmatically, though, the bigger driver for a meaningful response is likely to be the health implication of children’s increasing inactivity. Public Health England estimates that a third of 10-11 year olds and over a fifth of 4-5 year olds is now obese. While policymakers focus on how to improve diets and increase formal exercise, studies of the calorific efficiency of children at play demonstrate that freely playing children frequently engage in more intense levels of physical activity than in even the most vigorous organised sports. Unlike sports, however, the activity is spontaneous, for no reward and enjoyed by all children. Thus, children rest and exert their bodies alternately in a self-regulated, natural rhythm over sustained periods. So convinced was he of the physical benefits of free play that Dietz, writing in the British Medical Journal in 2001 about the coming obesity epidemic, opined that the ‘main solution’ was ‘to simply turn off the TV and let them play’.

Whatever the incentive to re-establish a meaningful response to children’s need or right to play it will involve taking on a number of long-established policy areas where their needs are rarely considered; and, ultimately, one where they are construed to be less important than – or at best, equivalent to – their future needs as adults.

One oft-quoted measure of children’s declining freedom to enjoy outdoor space unsupervised – their degree of independent mobility, or ‘licence to roam’ – has been the proportion of them walking unsupervised to school. A study by the Policy Studies Institute in 1990 found that this figure fell from 80 per cent in 1971 to a mere 9 per cent by 1990 and more recent studies suggest this figure may now be even lower. A policy for play must tackle the causes of this withdrawal.

Traffic, planning, and housing

Research perennially reveals that cars, vans and lorries – moving and stationary – are the greatest barrier to children’s independent mobility and the street play that goes with it. Traffic calming schemes alone do little to address the problem. What is needed is a major and long-term rethink of how we conceive streets where people live. The pervading model of roads with dwellings down each side has resulted in whole neighbourhoods, districts and cities becoming devoid of children playing on the pavements or in the ‘shallow sidewalk niches out of the line of moving pedestrian feet’ (Jacobs, 1961), as they had done in previous generations.

Street play schemes are a grass roots attempt to reclaim this space from ‘king-car’ but must lead in the longer term to more home-zones, pedestrian areas, and shared space designs – as the norm, not the exception – so that the streets where people live are once again for people of all ages to enjoy, not just for vehicles to drive down.

To the extent that planning decisions directly impact on the shape and nature of the built environment and how it responds to people, national planning policy and local development frameworks should specifically identify space for children’s play as a planning priority, while planning guidance for housing in particular should specify minimum standards – quality and quantity – of play space in new developments, such as those produced by the Mayor of London in 2006.

Policing and anti-social behaviour

A society that proscribes hopscotch, ball games and young people simply hanging out together, while accepting a daily toll of death and injury to children simply trying to get from one side of a street to another clearly has a long way to go to create a child-friendly public realm. A report by Demos in 2006 provocatively suggested that an ASB hotline should be established not for reporting nuisance by young people, but for them to log the many instances where they are harassed by adult society (such as the use of the notorious ‘mosquito’ buzzers) for simply being out in public.

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This may be a step too far even for a radical like Corbyn, but a successful play policy will need to engender a more sensitive, enabling approach to the policing of children and young people.

Childcare and Schools

Increasing the availability and affordability of childcare, not just for preschool children, but those in their primary years too, has been a major policy for successive governments. Labour’s manifesto in 2015 included the promise to ‘introduce a legal guarantee for parents of access to wraparound childcare from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. through their local primary school’, but since the end of its flagship Every Child Matters policy, much less attention has been paid to the quality of such provision, which too often amounts to children being effectively kept in school for up to 10 hours a day. It was part of the long-term play strategy that ‘extended services’ should contain a basic offer of staffed play provision, appropriately staffed by qualified practitioners. This would entail enriched play environments, including a requirement for outdoor space, and an adherence to the recognized standards of playwork.

For most communities, the local school is the greatest resource solely for children. The vast majority are narrowly focused on the curriculum, driven by a policy agenda that prioritises children’s narrowly defined ‘future life-chances’ over their needs and aspirations as people now. At the very least, school grounds are potential play spaces for local children throughout the day, and all year round, but are generally out-of-bounds when lessons have finished. With a more outward-looking, community-focused approach, these under-utilised public assets could become local ludic hubs. This would go a long way towards ensuring all children have somewhere to play near where they live.

Future directions

In the longer-term, a progressive child policy would look closely at the most current research on the nature and significance of children’s play in a range of academic disciplines –from evolutionary biology to neuroscience – and question the narrow, Piagetian basis of much modern educational practice.

In these days of seemingly endless austerity for public services, such an agenda may seem like wishful thinking in the extreme, yet it is less than six years since one very like it was a cornerstone of the last Labour government’s on-going reform programme, represented by its 10 year Children’s Plan to make England ‘the best place in the world to grow up’.

It remains to be seen whether or not David Cameron’s National Obesity Framework will again elevate the issue as a policy priority in the way that Baroness Benjamin and her colleagues propose, but if Jeremy Corbyn and his team want a big, popular issue around which to unite the parliamentary party and appeal to families across the spectrum, they could do worse than call a child policy review that again takes a serious look at children’s play and its place within the public realm.

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About the Author

voceAdrian Voce OBE is an external member of the All Party Parliamentary Group on a Fit and Healthy Childhood and on the core group of the European Network of Child-Friendly Cities. He was the main government advisor on the Play Strategy (2008) and founding director of Play England. His new book , Policy for Play, is available now.

 

(Image credit: Antibus13 CC BY-NC 2.0 and featured image: David Robert Bliwas CC BY 2.0)

Children’s rights’ lobby calls for statutory play duty in England

1 Jul

In what may come to be seen as a watershed moment for the campaign for children’s right to play in England, a report published today by the Children’s Rights Alliance for England and endorsed by a wide range of leading children’s rights advocates, including Barnardo’s, the Children’s Society and the NSPCC, has called for children’s play provision to become a full statutory duty and policy for play to once again become a specific responsibility of the national government.

The report, entitled UK implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child: civil society alternative report, 2015, to the UN Committee, England highlights the detrimental effect on children of austerity measures across a wide spectrum of their lives, including the hugely disproportionate reduction in play services and the closure of many playgrounds after the abandonment of the Play Strategy in 2010.

The Children’s Commissioner, Anne Longfield, once a member of the Children’s Play Council’s executive committee, was due to speak at the report’s launch in Parliament later today, 1st July.

 

 

 

Advocating for play at the crossroads (part 1)

5 May

With election fever running high, there are suddenly many and various asks for new play policy. In this first of a two-part blog for General Election week, Adrian Voce considers the impact of government cuts on the play movement’s capacity to advocate for change.

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Coalition cuts have turned the play movement on its head. Photo: Mick Conway.

You wait five years for a case to be made for government play policy; then, like the London buses of popular metaphor, several come along at once. There must be a general election. Or perhaps the damage inflicted since the last one has been so deep, it has taken this long for the play movement to regroup.

In the five years since the Conservative-led Coalition Government not only abandoned the Play Strategy within a fortnight of taking office, but then divested itself, for the first time since the 1980s, of any responsibility for children’s play whatsoever[1], calls for government action on play in England have been muted in the extreme. Until now: during the run-up to this week’s poll – one which many are calling a crossroads in British political and social history – there has been a flurry of campaigning activity by a variety of play sector groupings.

The Children’s Play Policy Forum (CPPF), the Association of Play Industries (API), the Playwork Conference in Eastbourne and, most recently, the playwork journal, iP-Dip, have each set out their different ‘asks’, hoping to influence the parties vying for power in what seems sure to be the closest-run election for decades.

Add to this list the letter to 3000 candidates from an ad hoc group that came together on Facebook, and it would seem that the national play movement has started to find its voice again. Of course there have been many valiant local battles against closures, such as the one to defend Stonebridge Adventure Playground in Brent, but without serious support, from either politicians or a diminished national sector, the results have in most cases been all too predictable.

“the plethora of advocacy for government action on play is a welcome sign that there is still life in the movement”

Leaving aside, for now, the merits or otherwise of the different proposals now published, the sudden plethora of advocacy for government action on play is a welcome sign that there is still life in the movement after a lengthy period when it has seemed all but moribund as a force for change. The problem, of course, is that the voice is actually several voices, each asking for different things from whichever party – or, more likely, combination of parties – will form the next government.

Of course, there is no reason why everyone demanding a better deal for children when it comes to public support for their play should have the same view of how to achieve it, or what it would look like. Play is a famously ambiguous thing and the ‘play sector’ is no more homogenous than any other. A diversity of views and objectives is as desirable as it is inevitable.

However, as one of our most important political champions, Chris Smith famously exhorted us in the early days of the New Labour Government, if we want policymakers to listen and respond we have to build a consensus around what it is we are asking for: ‘to speak with one voice’. Subsequent events proved this to be no pretext for inaction, and no empty promise either. It was Smith’s pledge of lottery funding for play – widely seen as his response to the sector’s efforts to collaborate around key areas, including policy – that paved the way for the Labour government’s (eventually) serious commitment to play, represented in the Play Strategy (2008).

Since those heady days, the play movement’s influencing activity has been massively reduced, its effectiveness hugely diminished; for the same obvious reason that we now have such a disparate set of proposals. In 2010-11 a government set on radically reducing the size and role of the state first introduced an emergency budget, then made a ‘bonfire of the quangos’ and didn’t mind too much what it threw on, as long as is it helped to reduce departmental budgets. Swathes of national support and development infrastructure for whole areas of public life were dismantled almost overnight. Never mind if that work was being done by charities on behalf of children and those who work with them for little or no reward. By the end of that first period of Coalition cuts, there was no government play policy for England, and no play infrastructure.

“By the end of that first period of cuts there was no government play policy for England, and no play infrastructure”.

Far from the ‘efficiency-savings’ that small-state idealogues pretend is the only outcome of scrapping what they like to characterise as ‘wasteful bureaucracy’, dismantling the support and development infrastructure for an under-developed area of public life – like how society responds to children’s right to play in the face of big social and environmental changes that constrain and inhibit it – doesn’t just leave it under-developed; it makes effective advocacy for progress much harder too.

A properly resourced network, with capacity for research, consultation and debate, means policy ideas can be developed in a rigorous, evidenced way. It also brings different perspectives together to find the common ground that can translate into cohesive proposals, not just underpinned by good arguments but also supported by those working in the field. This is vitally important to any government considering new policy; not for altruistic reasons of wanting to reward democratic process, but because it needs to know that the ‘delivery chain’ will be reliable; the policy workable because it is supported by those needing to make it work.

We should not berate ourselves that this time around consensus appears to have eluded us. It is not cynical to suppose that the cancellation of national support contracts for policy areas like play was, in fact, for this very purpose. The difference that such ‘savings’ make to government finances, which are calculated in tens of billions, is negligible. A better reason to axe the funding for the Children’s Play Information Service (NCB), the Playwork Development Strategy (Skillsactive), and especially the play policy and research work undertaken by CPC and then Play England since 2000  – minor contracts in government terms, but invaluable national development work in terms of building the capacity for change – was precisely that it would make effective advocacy for new policy much harder. One only has to consider the effect of the Lobbying Act on charities’ capacity to influence the political process to realise that the outgoing government hates voluntary sector pressure groups as much as it claims to loathe quangos[2].

“not even Labour has a spending plan to reverse cuts that have seen a reduction of at least 52 per cent in local play budgets since 2009-10″

In reality, it does not matter too much that the calls for government action on play in the next Parliament have been so disunited. By the time anyone in government is ready to listen again, the ‘asks’, as well as many of the pledges of this campaign will be long forgotten. So successful has the Coalition been in peddling its version of the economic crisis that ushered it into office, it is now more or less accepted wisdom – even in the face of authoritative testimony to the contrary – that the financial crash was caused not by reckless lending and esoteric, high-risk trading by international banks, but by the excessive public spending of the Labour government. In the face of the dreaded charge of fiscal imprudence, not even Labour has a spending plan to reverse any time soon the draconian cuts that have seen a reduction of at least[3] 52 per cent in local play budgets since 2009-10 (CRAE, 2014). Neither do any of the parties include play in their manifesto commitments.

So, is all lost for play policy, whoever may be leading the Government this time next week? Not quite.

(To be continued)

Adrian Voce

Part 2 of this blog, tomorrow, will consider the prospects for play policy under each of the two possible leading parties of the next government.

References and footnotes

Children’s Rights Alliance for England (2014), State Of Children’s Rights In England: Review of Government action on United Nations’ recommendations for strengthening children’s rights in the UK. London: Children’s Rights Alliance for England.

[1] In June 2010, as well as cancelling Play Strategy work in England, the Government also withdrew from the smaller national contracts for play, which had been in place in various forms since 1982. For a short time it considered taking play policy forward within the ‘Big Society’ context (see Nick Clegg’s speech that same month) and Play England was re-commissioned (at a much reduced level) to explore the potential for this, but the Comprehensive Spending Review of October 2010 ruled out any further government interest.

[2] In fact, like every government, this one has found itself dependent on the work of specialist public bodies and has not been able to make its bonfire as high as it wished.

[3] This figure is derived from responses by only 32 of 152 local authorities issued with a Freedom of Information request by the Children’s Rights Alliance for England. It is reasonable to assume that those LAs unable to comply with the request may have made even greater cuts to their play budgets (and therefore lacked even the capacity to respond).

25 years on, children’s play remains the forgotten right

20 Nov
The 25th anniversary of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child appears to be passing uncelebrated, at least by the government and its agencies. Perhaps this is because their record, certainly on one of the most important rights to children themselves, is nothing to shout about. Adrian Voce reports.

25 years ago today, on Universal Children’s Day 1989, the United Nations adopted its Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), the first comprehensive, international treaty to recognise, protect, and promote the fulfillment of basic human rights for children everywhere.

The CRC was the culmination of many decades of campaigning across the world and, according to the UN, ‘marked the transition from addressing children’s immediate needs through charity alone … towards advocacy (for) systemic change for the realisation of (their) rights’. The anniversary will be celebrated in many countries to recognise the gains the CRC has helped to bring about in areas such as education and participation for children.

‘the CRC marked the transition from addressing children’s immediate needs through charity alone … towards advocacy (for) systemic change for the realisation of (their) rights’ – United Committee on the Rights of the Child

In England, however, it appears to be passing by without remark. Even the office of the Children’s Commissioner, whose recently reformed[i] role is to ‘promote and protect children’s rights in accordance with the UNCRC’, does not appear to think the date noteworthy enough for a statement, let alone an event. The Children’s Commissioner’s annual Takeover Day is tomorrow. This is when tens of thousands of children ‘take over’ adult jobs for the day to ‘get a real insight into the world of work’ and ‘make their voices heard’. Might not those voices want to assert more of their rights than for work experience? Perhaps they will; we shall see.

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Where next for children’s right to play in England?

One of the earliest antecedents to the CRC was a document, now more than a century old, rejoicing in the title, The Declaration of Dependence by the Children of America in Mines and Factories and Workshops Assembled (1913)[ii]. This landmark publication began by stating ‘that childhood is endowed with certain inherent and inalienable rights, among which are freedom from toil for daily bread; the right to play and to dream…’ The document was a key instrument of the movement to abolish child labour in the United States, and was influential in the early children’s rights movement in the UK and Europe too.

Leaving aside the irony that the United States, after playing such a key early role, is now the only nation not to have either ratified the CRC or signalled its intention to do so, the labouring children of America on whose behalf the declaration was made, given a glimpse into the future, may have been just a little bit puzzled that an annual event designed to highlight the importance of children’s rights in a later age, did so by sending them to work in adult jobs for a day.

According to the Children’s Rights Alliance for England (CRAE), in ‘most respects there is poor implementation’ of the CRC in England, with no domestic law requiring statutory bodies to comply, or giving children the means to challenge. Neither, according to CRAE, ‘is there any cross-government children’s rights strategy with actions and targets … Government budgets do not identify how much money is spent on children’ and there is a lack of other data too.

‘in most respects there is poor implementation’ of the CRC in England’- Children’s Rights Alliance for England (CRAE)

CRAE’s 12th periodic State of Children’s Rights in England report published yesterday reveals that it is children who are bearing the brunt of austerity measures resulting in ‘too many … having their basic human rights breached’.

Not least of these is their right ‘to play and to dream’. Under Article 31 of the CRC, ‘States Parties recognise the right of the child to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities, and to participate freely in cultural life and the arts’, but according to CRAE’s report this right continues to ‘suffer from poor recognition of its importance, and a lack of investment by government at national and local level’. Indeed, since the abandonment of the last Government’s long-term play strategy, the report finds an overall reduction of 54% in funding for play by local authorities. A closer reading reveals that this figure is derived from the only 32 councils who responded to a Freedom of Information request – and of these three had reduced their play spending to zero. A more accurate figure for the reduced spending on play  – including all those authorities who presumably do not even have anyone left to field the enquiry – is therefore likely to be considerably higher.

Of course an international perspective on the progress of children’s rights since 1989 highlights concerns other than children’s play. A report by UNICEF, also published yesterday, whilst assessing that their has been overall progress on a number of fronts, also contains the sobering statistic that after 25 years, still ‘17,000 children under the age of 5 die every day largely from causes we know how to prevent’.

UNICEF is right to highlight the terrible plight of the millions of children affected by war, famine and extreme poverty, whose most basic right to life is under threat. But in signing and ratifying the CRC, the UK was not simply adding its support to a global campaign to end child hunger and protect them from the ravages of war. According to the current government, since the CRC into force here, on 15 January 1992 ‘all UK government policies and practices must comply with it’.

‘the right to an adequate standard of living, to an education, to be cared for and to play … (they) should always receive minimum standards of treatment whatever the changing economic climate’ – CRAE

This means, according to CRAE, that for ‘the basic things children need to thrive – the right to an adequate standard of living, to an education, to be cared for and to play … (they) should always receive minimum standards of treatment whatever the changing economic climate’.

The Government’s own report on progress under the CRC, an 86-page document published in May this year, contains one paragraph about children’s play in England, and this mainly about a the 12 year strategy that it abandoned after less than three (although this latter fact is discretely omitted). What the government has done since is covered by one sentence: ‘wider activities to promote and support play were also supported’.

A new report on the economics of the obesity epidemic, also published today, finds that it is a greater burden on the UK’s economy than armed violence, war and terrorism, costing the country a massive £47bn a year. This puts it on a par with the effects of smoking, but with a far more complex set of causes. The report, by McKinsey and Company, illustrates the shortcomings of the strictly evidence-based approach that I discussed in my last blog. Not mentioning children’s play at all, its recommendations to increase physical activity in children are limited to obesity ‘boot-camps’ and ‘changing physical activity curricula in schools’. This is presumably because these interventions are measurable in the way that the accepted model for cost-benefit analyses need to be.

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Children will do anythiing to avoid obesity boot-camp

Creating the healthful environments for children, where they are free, permitted and encouraged to move and play throughout their lives and within each of the domains in which they are grow, learn and develop, is not an ‘intervention’ that economic analysts are able to easily monetise and quantify, at least not since such an attempt was abandoned in 2010, ironically, to save money. But every parent knows that a child who has played to their fill, outside in the fresh air with their friends, comes home exercised, tired and hungry, ready for a good meal and a good night’s sleep.

‘opportunities for spontaneous play may be the only requirement that young children need to increase their physical activity’ – Dr William Dietz, British Medical Journal (2001)

One of the earliest warnings about a growing ‘obesity epidemic in young children’ appeared within a 2001 report carried in The British Medical Journal, which found that ‘opportunities for spontaneous play may be the only requirement that young children need to increase their physical activity and that the main solution to the imminent crisis was to ‘reduce television viewing and promote playing[iii].’

Should we be guaranteeing this simple opportunity for children in order to help prevent the rising costs of the obesity crisis? No, we should be doing it because it is our responsibility, our obligation under international law: because it is children’s right, because they are self-evidently happier and healthier when they can play than when they cannot; and because families, communities and societies everywhere are more at ease with themselves when they do.

Whatever the reasons, the price of not providing for children’s right to play will continue to mount, and the rising costs of obesity will be the least of it. One challenge for Anne Longfield, the incoming Children’s Commissioner, an old friend of the play movement who was an early treasurer of the Children’s Play Council, should be to support the calls for a new national play strategy (even if this marks a departure from the mindset behind national Takeover Day).

On this 25th anniversary of the landmark Convention on the Rights of the Child, in the West at least, perhaps it is time we renewed an earlier vision for childhood, as a time for playing and dreaming.

Adrian Voce

[i] Children and Families Act 2014, Part 6

[ii] McKelway, A (2013), National Child Labour Committee (USA)

[iii] Dietz WH (2001) ‘The obesity epidemic in young children,’ British Medical Journal. Vol 322 pp 313-314


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