Tag Archive: Schools

  1. How can schools improve children’s wellbeing and save money?

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    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.

  2. Has Covid-19 led to a reduction in school playtimes?

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    I was recently asked to sign an online petition to oppose the cutting back of school playtimes in response to Covid-19 arrangements in primary schools. I usually work in schools every day, but since lockdown I’ve only been into one. Before signing, I wanted to find out a bit more about what’s really happening out there. So we published a quick Twitter poll and out of 50 respondents, 50% said that playtime has been reduced in their school.

    This is obviously a small sample, but if it is even close to being representative of schools nationally then over 2.25 million children in England between the ages of 4 and 11 could have less outdoor playtime than before the pandemic.

    In her Blog Play in the Pandemic, Professor of Child Psychology Helen Dodd points out:

    “For social and emotional wellbeing, children need opportunity for all types of play, including play with their peers and physical outdoor play, both of which have been and, to some extent, continue to be restricted. This restriction is likely to felt particularly acutely by children without siblings who are close in age and by children who don’t have easy access to outdoor space.”

    In their 2018 paper, Moore and Lynch* concluded that wellbeing, happiness and play are intrinsically linked:

    “Findings illustrate the degree and complexity with which children understand the influences on their happiness (well-being) to be interrelated, highlighting an expanded view of play as a subjective aspect of childhood that is intrinsically connected to well-being and happiness.”

    What an OPAL school had to say

    I decided to speak to a school that will soon complete the OPAL Primary Programme to find out if they had reduced the time children get to play. Helen Easton, Assistant Head at Ivydale Infant’s in Islington, told me:

    “No not at all. From 10.15 onwards the playground is in almost continuous use. We had improved play at the school before the pandemic and everything got better, especially concentration, relationships and behaviour. The children know we take their play seriously and it is their right. Children need the quality of play we provide here more than ever now.”

    I was interested to know how the school manages the logistics of playtimes. Helen said:

    “Lunch time runs for 1 hour and 45 minutes. We make sure that every child has a full hour of playtime, plus they have two fifteen-minute playtimes in the day as well. We have five bubbles and five areas, we have tried to provide resources and key points of interest for each bubble, like the sand pit or the water play and rotate them weekly”.

    I was also interested to hear that not all of the impact has been negative. As a large school with a small space Helen observed:

    “It feels more manageable now, children have more space and there is less noise. New children have definitely formed bonds with their classmates quicker and there is more collaborative play than before within the class.”

    Trying to cope with logistics of socially distanced feeding and toilet breaks has pushed schools to their limits and, in many of our primary schools, outdoor play is likely to have been one of the casualties of the pandemic. Although this is understandable, it is counterproductive for children’s wellbeing, happiness and development. As we navigate schooling during this difficult time, we need to make sure that play is not forgotten.   

    Michael Follett, OPAL Director

    Do you have evidence of how primary school playtimes have changes due to Covid-19? Please share with us by getting in touch or Tweeting us @OPAL_CIC.

    *Alice Moore & Helen Lynch (2018) Understanding a child’s conceptualisation of well-being through an exploration of happiness: The centrality of play, people and place, Journal of Occupational Science, 25:1, 124-141, DOI: 10.1080/14427591.2017.1377105

  3. Take the Play Challenge

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    Schools want to improve playtimes, they may want to improve behaviour, create happier playtimes, increase physical activity or mental well-being. But it is not a matter of simply laying some playground markings, putting in a trim trail or adding a few loose parts.

    Michael Follett set up OPAL – Outdoor Play and Learning – as a community interest company over five years ago. Since then, hundreds of schools across the UK, as well as schools in Canada, New Zealand and Australia have successfully completed the OPAL Primary Programme.

    Here, he explains how he persuades Headteachers to invest in play development.

    Read the blog on the Play England Website