Money. There’s never been enough of it for everything our primary schools need to do, arguably even more so right now amid a pandemic. So, if there’s a way of using limited funds more positively and efficiently, which an entire school can benefit from, would you be interested?
The number of English primary schools has slowly decreased over the decades, from around 21,000 after WW2 to under 17,000 today. However, the pupil population of individual schools has been steadily increasing (back in 2015 there were already 87 schools with more than 800 pupils), resulting in a current national average of one adult in the playground at lunchtime for every 36 pupils.
“The average state-funded primary school now has 282 pupils on its roll… Since 2009, the average size of primary schools has increased by 43 pupils, the equivalent of more than 1.5 extra classes per school”Schools, pupils and their characteristics: January 2019, Department for Education
The application of the 1:36 ratio results in the presence of many untrained adults in the play environment. Supervisors are left to work in the absence of any strategic or policy-based approach from the school, leading to decisions and practices which diminish the quality of play and make playtimes even harder to manage. Common examples include separating children by age and confining children onto relatively small areas of Tarmac for most of the year. Inevitably, overcrowding and boredom caused by lack of engaging play opportunities lead to inactivity, high levels of low-level accident reporting and increased behavioural incidents. As a result, the staff call for even more staff or less playtime. Schools don’t need more staff – they need better training!
Investing in staff – including lunchtime supervisors – makes sense financially. When supervisors change from a policing role to a playwork-based enabling role, the following usually happens:
- playground incidents quickly decrease as play quality rises
- there are fewer demands on senior leaders’ time
- playground staff have many more positive interactions and fewer negative encounters with children
- ball games are no longer the dominant activity
- teachers get more time to teach after lunchtimes.
Sport England’s 2019 Active Lives Children and Young People Survey found that:
- Active play and informal activities remain the most common way for children in younger age groups (Years 1-6) to be active.
- The first Active Lives Children and Young People survey showed that enjoyment above all other elements of physical literacy is the biggest driver of children’s activity levels.
Everybody’s time costs money and schools are very expensive institutions to run. The hundreds of schools that OPAL has worked with since 2006 typically save between £2,000 and £4,500 per year in recovered time.
Schools are eager to spend a great deal of money on fixed play equipment, especially low-level, ‘low risk’ trim trails, despite children finding them to have limited, short-term play value. After the initial wave of excitement has passed, it isn’t long before fixed equipment becomes ‘just part of the furniture’, effectively ending up as an overpriced seat or coat hanger. A medium sized primary school typically spends around £50,000 a year on the mediocre or poor supervision of play. Wouldn’t investment in play be better spent on the quality of this workforce through training in the basics of Playwork than on fixed items that provide a small amount of benefit to a small number of children?
The same question about spending money wisely also applies across the UK nations. The total cost for the supervision of playtimes is three quarters of a billion pounds every year. In Wales and Scotland there are polices and strategies to help schools provide a vision of what this investment should be used for. In England there is nothing!
The inadequate training of more than 130,000 primary school lunchtime staff has to be questioned at school and governmental levels.
There are 4.7 million primary school children who desperately need better play opportunities in their lives. Every ten years, £7.5 billion is wasted on staffing that is not fit for purpose. The transformation of school supervisors into a properly trained school playwork team can have a positive impact across every aspect of school life. A national playwork workforce could revolutionise the quality of practice, save schools thousands of pounds and improve every child’s mental and physical wellbeing.
Neil Coleman, OPAL Mentor
Note: The PE & Sport Premium guidance now emphasises Active Breaks twice within the five key indicators, so schools can use some of their PESSP grant to develop the skills and knowledge of the staff who will supervise playtimes.