A conversation about Play England’s future

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At a Play England members meeting in 2015, entitled ‘Children’s Play – The Challenge Ahead’, a significant number of people agreed that now was the time to generate a wide-ranging discussion about Play England’s own future role; this discussion also to consider how the national body should go about its business. The emphasis was very much on looking forward in an open minded and mutually supportive way, aware of past and current initiatives and programmes, but not to be governed by these.

In an informal initiative generated by one of the discussion groups at the ‘Challenge Ahead’ meeting, Wendy Russell of the University of Gloucestershire and Bernard Spiegal of PLAYLINK wrote to those present in order to try and progress that conversation. Although Play England assented to the move, it was stressed that the initiative was independent of them. A copy of Wendy and Bernard’s letter can be read here.

The letter highlighted some discussion themes, saying that these included, but were not limited to:

  • In what way, and by what means, can independent, dispassionate thought and talk be encouraged?
  • How can play organisations, supporters and stakeholders work better together and support each other in the current political environment?  How can we support each other?
  • Should more reliance be placed on individuals to make voluntary commitments of time and energy to carry forward thinking and action in respect of play in England?  Is it realistic to do so?  (Ask not what Play England can do for you, but what you can do for play in England!).
  • If ‘yes’ to the above, how might this be achieved, and what should be the relation between this voluntary endeavour and Play England?
  • How might Play England and its supporters campaign on behalf of children’s play, and how might the diverse policy and commitment streams in the area of play be more fruitfully, more cohesively, inter-connected?
  • How might Play England and its supporters better reflect the diversity of England’s population?
  • Is there a need to make a decisive break with thinking that assumes progress can be made only if Play England is externally funded?
  • To what extent, if any, should Play England involve itself in direct service delivery?
  • How might more effective alliances be formed with non-play specific organisations, groupings and campaigns that nevertheless affect the practical realisation of the right to play?
  • What are the major themes/issues ‘play’ should be addressing?

Wendy and Bernard then circulated, to all who had expressed an interest, their summary of the responses to their letter. A copy of this can be read here.

Since then, other than some further break out groups at Play England’s AGM in January, the conversation has stalled somewhat for want of a suitable platform. I have therefore agreed to provide this space, in order to

a) enable the conversation to continue on-line; and

b) provide opportunities for those interested in organising further face-to-face discussions to do so.

Whether you are a member of Play England or of the wider play community in England, and have a response to any of these, or other issues that you are willing to share, please use the comments section below.

If you would like to suggest or call a meeting to enable face-to-face discussions to continue, please use the separate page here to network and connect with others who may like to attend or host such meetings.

I will leave these pages open for as long as there are contributions being made to them (or I am asked to take them down!).

My only request is to please observe the simple rules of professional courtesy and try to focus on principles and issues rather than personalities.

Adrian Voce
9th March, 2016

 

23 Responses to “A conversation about Play England’s future”

  1. Mick Conway 9 March 2016 at 6:02 pm #

    Great to see this up. Just testing it works. Do I (or anyone else) always have to sign in with the email/name/Wordpress gravatar info to publish a comment? Is there a way to stay logged in?

    Like

  2. mickplay 9 March 2016 at 6:05 pm #

    Just posted the above and then I had to sign in from my WordPress account again! Any chance of making it easier to comment?

    Like

    • adrianvoce 9 March 2016 at 6:58 pm #

      Sorry Mick, I assumed it would be easier, especially for ‘frequent fliers’. Is it easier to comment on the regular blog posts?

      Like

  3. adrianvoce 10 March 2016 at 5:40 pm #

    Mick, I have made some adjustments and hope it is now easier to comment?

    Like

  4. John Hale 11 March 2016 at 12:16 am #

    Thank you for doing this Adrian. I used my Facebook login it was very straight forward. I presume it will just be under this article or any subsequent ones you post?

    Like

    • adrianvoce 11 March 2016 at 8:08 am #

      Thanks John, you’re welcome to comment anywhere on this site, but the conversation about Play England will be here.

      Like

  5. bernardspiegal 17 March 2016 at 4:56 pm #

    Adrian, been away so only seen this now. Thanks for taking initiative to set this up (and the related site for those wanting to arrange face-to-face meetings).

    The hope is that now we have the means to communicate with each other and ‘think out loud’, and, as wendy has it, not to fear to chase a few red herrings – that may turn out to be neither red, nor herrings. Regards, Bernard

    Like

  6. adrianvoce 17 March 2016 at 4:59 pm #

    Hi Bernard, it’s my pleasure, but the conversation is taking its time to warm up!

    Like

  7. Mark Gladwin 23 March 2016 at 9:51 pm #

    Declaration of interest first: I am a Play England trustee. I have held back so far from sticking my oar into this conversation (and I think my fellow trustees have thought likewise), because the idea for it originated with members who wanted an independent discussion forum outside formal meetings, and therefore it didn’t seem right for trustees to be setting the agenda. But as Adrian notes, the conversation seems to be slow to get going, so here goes. I also need to say by way of preface that these are my personal views, have not been agreed with my trustee colleagues, and are not an official statement of Play England’s position. Throat clearing over!

    My opinion is that Play England must be a national (English) campaign for children’s rights to play under Article 31, and should not seek to represent any sector of play providers, though working co-operatively with all who share the vision, whether inside or outside the play sector. Such a campaign cannot succeed unless it wins over, among others, government and other public authorities. Many other individuals and organisations, not least Fair Play, have of course fought that campaign in the past, and continue to fight it. But in its original guise, Play England had greater opportunities than many of those campaigners to gain the ear of government on policy, and (pace its critics) I believe it used those opportunities to good effect until the National Play Strategy fell victim to Michael Gove.

    I also believe that the policy successes would have been impossible without Play England’s track record in service delivery, which won it the right to be listened to. It’s not enough having the right policies if nobody in government is paying attention. That’s why I am suspicious of invitations to “dare to be small”, by avoiding funded programmes while focussing solely on policy; though I am well aware of the compromises, mission creep and general distractions that come with service delivery. And our programmes must always be strategic in their objectives and partnership-focussed in their delivery, adding value to local play providers and not competing against them.

    Of course, we now have a government that is largely indifferent to both service delivery and policy development in play, though there are still chinks of opportunity which we are doing our best to exploit. And being small isn’t any longer a matter of choice for Play England, daring or otherwise – it is an existential necessity. So I hope that this conversation, as it develops, will provide some pointers for me and my fellow trustees about how Play England can not only survive, but find the right balance between service delivery and policy influence, while maintaining an unwavering focus on children’s rights to play. And some day a change will come.

    Liked by 1 person

    • bernardspiegal 11 April 2016 at 11:50 am #

      First, a technical point/question: how many people are actually seeing/following this ‘conversation’ on this blog? Be good to know, perhaps this format doesn’t work, or interest has fallen away? So I’d like to ask those who are following this to simply indicate as such, even in the absence of further comment.

      Now to more substantive matters. First, thank you to Mark for his comments. His efforts made me feel guilty for not thus far participating, so I’ve had a bash below. In what follows I am not particularly seeking to agree or rebut Mark’s viewpoint. I simply thought to take a stroll around at least some of the sort of questions his very useful contributon seems to me to prompt.

      My comments are not perhaps as well ordered as they might be, nor do they land on ‘the’ answer to whatever question we are attempting to address. So, here goes:

      Perhaps it’s time – for a few moments at least – to put to one side talk of ‘policies’, ‘influencing’ Government and, indeed, ‘service delivery’. This is very much an Establishment language, that has its place and purpose, but should not – not yet, at least – frame the discussion/conversation.

      I think we are speaking about something quite specific, a ‘right’, in our case, to play. Mark correctly identifies this as a core purpose, and attaches to its pursuit the need to ‘campaign’. But the idea of a campaign, and what it implies, seems to me to sit uneasily with talk about ‘influencing’, ‘policies’, and ‘service delivery’.

      ‘Rights’ are rarely conceded without what amounts to a fight – think gay rights; women’s rights’; equality rights etc. Certainly, once a right is conceded the language of government, priorities, delivery is waiting in the wings, ready to move nearer to centre stage.

      Perhaps we have been guilty of allowing a complex, far-reaching notion – a ‘right’ to play – to be reduced to ‘the need for funding’, to ‘play in schools’, to Street Play, to promoting washing powder. It’s not a question of whether these are useful things to do or not, but whether an almost exclusive entanglement with Establishment structures and modes of thought has engendered in us a sort of tunnel vision such that we cannot see, and are nervous about, what has fallen out of view; that is, a fairly radical view about how society is ordered – just think of the monumental changes required to Planning and Development (and associated financing of the same) if there is to be the slightest hope of making children’s right to roam meaningful beyond the supervised boundary of a temporary Play Street.

      One way of looking at the ‘state of play’, is to see it is as a game, or dance, of two Establishments – on the one hand, Government, civil servant, funders etc; on the other, PE, the other national bodies, CPPF and so forth. The name of the game here is ‘persuasion’ within what is a self-contained world. Thus, for example, one government gives the impression that a Play Strategy is a very fine thing and signs up to it, while another thinks not. And of course, even within a particular Government, priorities can change, so nothing is ultimately secure. Especially perhaps, when there is not external force or constituency supporting a desired policy.

      The prerequisite of a campaign – a specifically political campaign – is independence. Independence is not secured by taking the Queen’s pennies. It needs to be admitted, and here funded organisations may need to come clean, that if one accepts national or local state funding, one’s freedom to speak out loud and to act independently is thereby curtailed.

      It may be thought that such funding makes such a curtailment acceptable, and that is a legitimate choice that can be made. But the consequences – the cost – of such a choice needs to be acknowledged.

      The answer to what might be called the ‘independence question’ may be different for different organisations. Here questions of context, purpose, need come into play – there is no one right answer.

      But we are looking at one specific organisation, Play England, so this discussion has a clear focus. It says that it is independent. Now the question is: what exactly might that mean? What might it entail? (Actually, there is in fact a prior question, one I had originally meant to start with, i.e. does there need to be a Play England? That, perhaps, for another time.)

      Liked by 1 person

      • plexity 11 April 2016 at 11:54 am #

        “I don’t want to change the world
        I’m not looking for Play England
        I’m just looking for another girl”

        Like

      • adrianvoce 11 April 2016 at 1:49 pm #

        Bernard, just to answer your initial question: everyone who responded to your and Wendy’s letter(s) received a link to this page. My site also gets an average of 40 visits per day, more when there is a new post.

        Adrian

        Like

      • playperspective 19 April 2016 at 6:39 pm #

        Hi it’s Kelda here, I have just checked in and am reading the blog. I will sort a login later on that has my name on it. Agree with Mark about sometimes doing project delivery.. I also agree about independence. Play England has the chance to be more independent now, and has the opportunity to speak more freely now than they previously did. Freedom to speak is definitely hampered by making sure not to offend finders/ lose funding. Now maybe there is more freedom, but the staff team is currently small, not big. So how could there be both? How can there be the ‘big’ that Bernard says needs to happen? It would be good to hear what more PE trustees think about this. Also… I am studying the Play and Space module at the moment at Gloucester . Most of what I know about play and children in space I have learnt from working in play settings – however… Are people on this blog aware of recent theory and ideas on public space and play? Do people want to know about it? Are we aware if we are operating on old ideas, or newer ones?

        Like

      • mickplay 19 April 2016 at 9:20 pm #

        In response to Bernard above. The notion of the right to play, and then its incorporation in UN Convention on the Rights of the Child only ever came about through people developing policy, influencing government and no doubt dealing with the “Establishments” over the decades.
        Article 31 is an amazingly simple and clear expression of the child’s right to play, given the history of how governments and their lobbyists can water down progressive ideas to near zero.
        General Comment 17 is a clarion call, not just to governments, but to everyone who has a care about children and their right to play.
        Two questions to readers:
        1. Have you read General Comment 17?
        2. If so, what have you done about it?

        Like

  8. Mark Gladwin 12 April 2016 at 3:06 pm #

    Plexity, I hope you find the girl you’re looking for. But if you’ll all pardon the unnecessarily gender-specific metaphor, Play England is the girl I’ve got, and I’m not aiming to two-time her.

    Like

    • plexity 25 April 2016 at 1:06 pm #

      It’s a quote from love song, of sorts. It is therefore necessarily gender-specific. If it vexes you, sue Billy Bragg, not moi.

      Like

  9. Mick Conway 14 April 2016 at 2:56 pm #

    I’d be interested to see a summary of the discussion at the recent Play England AGM. Ideally here or via a link to a page on the Play England website.
    In the meantime I’m trying to pull some thoughts together which I’ll share on here when they’re a bit more coherent. I’m also trying to resolve some pressing problems to do with my role on the Wild Network Council and how the four national play organisations can have a stronger voice in TWN – more on this in mid May I hope.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Mark Gladwin 14 April 2016 at 10:35 pm #

    Fair point, Mick. The trustees have started looking at the feedback from the AGM discussion and there will be a response, probably on the Play England website, hopefully fairly soon.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. bernardspiegal 22 April 2016 at 9:11 am #

    First, it would be lovely to hear more voices here. For myself, I have come to no definite conclusion, which is partly why it is important to me to hear what other people are thinking. Not necessarily in terms of setting out a firm and final position, but of ‘have you thought of this’, or ‘yes, but look at this way instead’. So, please, give us a hand at thinking through what are in fact a complex set of questions.

    One set of questions that I think needs deeper, further exploration revolve around what we want ‘independent’ to mean – as in, PE is now ‘independent’. True, it is constitutionally independent, but what does that allow or prompt?

    I think we can all see – can’t we? – that there is a tension between taking the Queen’s penny and feeling able in all circumstances to speak/protest freely about this or that. If this is a matter of trade-off – independence versus a degree of its curtailment – what price do we think it right to pay? Perhaps no price. I don’t know.

    There is also a question about focus, or perhaps it’s a question about balance. Am I right here? Is it easy to get the impression that our primary focus has been on funding – for services/projects (not here meaning PE itself) – and when we talk about funding we mean provision, and when we mean provision, we mean, overwhelmingly, staffed provision, whether by playworkers or by parents on a Play Street?

    Are we ‘funder-led’, by which I mean is it ultimately easier – yes, yes, it’s hard, I know – to concentrate on securing funding for frontline projects than, say, giving proper, informed and sustained attention, for example, to planning and development issues, to car use etc, etc? We might add here, too, giving time and attention to parents and their anxieties and aspirations for their children? After all, if supervised provision is to ‘x’ degree conceived as ‘compensatory’, do we pay sufficient attention to changing the conditions that make compensatory provision necessary? At the moment I’m not interested whether attention to these matters is fundable. I want, rather, to know whether in principle we think these areas important and need more sustained attention.

    Finally, back to my talk about Establishments. It is of course not a matter of whether or not we need to engage with the ‘Establishment’ – of course we do; and we have our own, which is a good thing – it’s under what conditions we engage. There does not have to be one answer here. If we are a sector, then who does what, is a useful question to ask.

    Like

  12. adrianvoce 29 April 2016 at 11:30 am #

    I set out some of my thoughts in 2013, about what the then newly independent Play England should set itself to. I invite anyone interested in this debate to take a look at what I said back then, and which I believe is still valid.

    https://policyforplay.com/2013/06/17/a-road-map-for-the-independent-play-england-2/

    To respond to some of the other comments here, I first want to dwell on the question of independence and what it means. Bernard appears to focus on financial independence, particularly in relation to state funding: ‘a tension between taking the Queen’s penny and feeling able in all circumstances to speak/protest freely about this or that’. In my experience this tension is much less than one might imagine.

    A highly pertinent example of this would be the government grant to the Children’s Play Council, awarded in 2000 (or thereabouts) and renewed regularly until 2010. This enabled CPC to research and develop a strong case for a national government play strategy, despite this being explicitly not government policy. It isn’t that there was no tension in using government funding to campaign, quite robustly, for it to change course, but the more one learned about the dynamics of government the less difficult that tension became.

    For instance, David Lammy, the culture minister with responsibility for such play policy as there was at that time – and the man in charge of the section of government that paid our grant – produced a document in 2006-7, called Time for Play, which made no concrete commitments or even proposals beyond the lottery funding that had already been agreed. CPC was highly and publicly critical of this position.

    This felt a little awkward when we invited him to speak at our conference only for him to tell our audience that a play strategy (still our main policy objective) was not on the agenda. When I met with him soon afterwards, however, there was no tension: quite the opposite. He congratulated us on a strong and persuasive case, saying that we should keep it up, as it helped him to argue our corner with cabinet colleagues.

    This dialogue led to us helping him to publish, in his own right as an MP, a position paper (https://secure.toolkitfiles.co.uk/clients/244/sitedata/Misc/David-Lammy-MP-MakingSpaceforChildren.pdf) that became a key milestone in the progression of government thinking on play: a progression that would lead, in December 2007, to Ed Balls’ announcement of the very play strategy we had been arguing for.

    No, the independence that I came to believe was a necessary step in the long-term aim to create a strong national play body, was independence of governance. CPC had essentially sacrificed its independence when it agreed for one its members, NCB, to assume responsibility for its financial management and other contractual commitments. Being an alliance of organisations rather than individuals in their own right, this was perhaps inevitable. No one sitting around the council table was or necessarily wanted to be a trustee; they were there as part of their job for another organisation. Once CPC began to acquire assets (grants and contracts to undertake its work), someone needed to manage these and NCB seemed best placed to do it.

    For some time this worked well. CPC had what was referred to as a ‘semi-autonomous’ status. It would develop, with its members, its own positions, aims and objectives while NCB would manage the programmes, projects and staff to pursue them. However, NCB had become the accountable body: it, not the CPC – or its wider membership – was in charge.

    This is relevant now, I think, in the light of Bernard’s various comments about the establishment. One could argue about what constitutes a part of ‘The Establishment’ (Owen Jones’ eye-opening book by that name is good place to start), but I think NCB might qualify under some definitions, certainly during the New Labour years. Our alliance with, and in particular our dependence on, NCB was a cause of far greater tension than our very hands-off funding relationship with the government.

    There were many reasons for this, not all of them for airing here, but one overriding factor was that although NCB was comprised of many different component parts (other councils and fora), each with quite progressive agendas, as a whole it was very much the non-statutory partner for delivering a government vision for children’s services that, at its heart, was at odds with that of the play movement. The ‘progress rhetoric’ identified by Brian Sutton-Smith, and the dominant discourse critically examined by Wendy and Stuart, among others, was not going to be much challenged by an agency that had been a leading architect of Every Child Matters, which sought primarily to drive up academic achievement and a host of other measurable ‘outcomes’.

    We were uneasy bedfellows, let alone comfortable to be the dependent, subsidiary body that we had unthinkingly become, and these tensions came to the fore when we began to assert our right to be independently constituted, responsible for our own resources, just at a time when the ‘parent’ body was contracting and adopting a policy of ‘consolidation’.

    It may be a tougher gig for the board, especially now that funding is so scare, but I think this kind of independence – play people taking responsibility for our own resources and our own vehicles – is absolutely necessary; the other kind – financial independence (if that means spurning pubic funds) – not so much. That way, unless you have a mass membership, poverty lies. I agree with Mark that a national body, even one that disciplines itself to be forensically strategic (as we must), rather than chasing funding for its own sake (as we must not), needs to think big. Affecting change takes time, expertise and resources; all of which cost money.

    I recall arguing with Tim at a CPC meeting, while he was still the director, about how condemnatory we should be of government policy. It is not to be critical of him to say that he was often a restraining influence on the more excitable elements of the council, me included! On this occasion he was warning against being too strident about changes to lottery law that looked like endangering the promise of a major children’s play programme. “It’s their money, after all” he said. “No, it’s not!” I said, “It’s the public’s. Specifically, it rightly belongs, collectively, to children”.

    Technically Tim was correct of course (and tactically, these kind of discussions usually resulted in the most balanced and ultimately most effective positions, as history shows, and so I repeat that this is not to be critical of his part, far from it) but the play movement, I believe, has a moral responsibility to acquire as much funding as is practicable for, and consistent with our purpose.

    If we look after the integrity of our governance and accountability structures and stay true to our aims, funding (from government or anywhere else), diligently acquired in ways that do not compromise us, should simply make us stronger and more useful to the children we intend to serve.

    I remember once (pre-lottery millions) being told, not unkindly, at a CPC conference where I had outlined our vision for the future, that I seemed unusually optimistic. I replied that I didn’t think I was, in fact, particularly optimistic but that I was certainly ambitious.

    Now is a much harder time to be optimistic but, ultimately, whatever the context, a national body must have ambition; or what’s the point?

    Like

  13. Julie Cresswell 15 June 2016 at 10:34 pm #

    Hello,. Iam just a lowly Playworker, probably one of the last to be qualified. but this has really got to me. We are interested and still passionate about play. I am pleased that it has been recognised to be a child’s right that we in the UK have failed at fulfilling. We are still here, recognise the need for trained Playworkers but have no body to help us find a way to train our new staff adequately. It’s hard! someone help us!

    Like

    • adrianvoce 16 June 2016 at 10:54 am #

      I hear you Julie! Some of us have begun the job of setting up a new vehicle specifically to fight the playwork corner. It’s slow work as there are no funds, but we’re committed to making it happen. You can read about what we’re attempting to do and sign up to be kept informed about it here: http://www.playworkfoundation.org

      Like

    • Lesli Godfrey 16 June 2016 at 5:44 pm #

      Playworkers aren’t lowly, Julie! There are some courses in playwork running, but access will very much depend on where you are. If you want to email me I might be able to pint you in the direction of a trainer… l.a.godfrey@leedsbeckett.ac.uk

      Liked by 1 person

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