As Port Wine and Peaty Whisky: a report to savour

Every now and again something rare and delightful wings its way to the place where one is perched – at a desk perhaps.   At first its import and attractiveness is not apparent – it is after all only a report and one’s immediate fear is that it will include the conventional diet of superficial case studies, or an evaluation that barely skims the surface of interest.

Turn now to imagery: for the imbibers among you, imagine a deep red to purple port wine, or a peaty malt whisky.  See them first in the glass, the ‘legs’ clinging to the glass’s side – a lingering quality.  Now taste, and whether port wine or whisky, you’ll feel that warm, smooth, satisfying quality of a drink well-formed, a pleasure well-received.

It is with these thoughts and images in mind that I commend to you the report of a ‘small-scale research project’, by Wendy Russell and Stuart Lester, both of the University of Gloucestershire.  The report explores how Welsh local authorities’ responded to the introduction of the duty to assess sufficiency of play opportunities for children, the first part of the Play Sufficiency Duty as set out in the Children & Families (Wales) Measure 2010, Section 11.  The report was commissioned by the rightly admired Play Wales.

The report  – enticingly entitled, ‘Leopard Skin Wellies, a Top Hat and a Vacuum Cleaner Hose’ – is a rare delight: well-written, insightful, attendant to nuance and complexity.  It addresses the issues arsing from the play sufficiency duty within an expansive, yet grounded, world view. One that refuses – no, is incapable of – trotting out the restricted and restricting ‘evaluations’ and ‘assessments’ more commonly sent to afflict us.  A whole philosophy – a broadly humanistic one, I should say – shines through.  And it is this broader aspect I want in the main to concentrate on in this piece.  But note, this article is but a pale and incomplete rendering of the report, so I urge you to secure your own copy.  As further inducement, what follows quotes extensively from the report, though I allow myself a few excursions around some of the points it makes.  Links to the report appear at the end of this post.

The report zaps you pretty much immediately by drawing out the implications of the Welsh Government’s approach.  This runs counter to the current political zeitgeist.  The sceptic in me can’t but wonder whether the Welsh Government is fully aware of the philosophical move it has made.  No matter (at least for the present), for here it is (emphasis added):

‘Whilst recognising the potential instrumental benefits of governmental attention to children’s play, Section 11 places a statutory duty on local authorities to assess and (so far as is reasonably practicable) to secure sufficient play opportunities for children. Alongside this is the Rights of Children and Young People (Wales) Measure 2011, which requires Welsh Ministers to have due regard to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) when exercising their functions.

It is these two moves – the statutory nature of the Play Sufficiency Duty and the rights-based approach to policy making for children and young people – that are innovative.... This unique policy landscape offers an opportunity…to move towards an appreciation of play as a right, and therefore of the intrinsic value of playing, as a complement to the dominant instrumental and outcomes focus on play as a means of addressing identified social problems.

Anyone who has been involved with play, or the arts for example, will immediately recognise this implicit mapping out of the perennial dilemma.  It is this: whilst those of us immersed in these areas have little difficulty in expounding their intrinsic value, we are forever forced – or feel ourselves forced – to justify them on instrumental grounds.  We need to acknowledge that, at best, such pragmatism has not, at least so far as play is concerned, got us very far – essentially we are, and have always been, conducting a holding operation. (Reference to past UK Government funding and notional commitments to play does nothing to dilute or counter the point being made here).   This is not an argument for eschewing pragmatism; but it is also suggests that such pragmatism needs to be subject to  close and vigilant scrutiny lest we delude ourselves that, for example, this or that bit of short-term programme funding means anything beyond itself.  The ‘itself’ here referring to the essentially instrumentalist role play is funded to serve: reductions in obesity, better educational outcomes, or whatever.   Whether play can reliably deliver,  be proved to deliver, sustainable benefits beyond itself will, it seems to me, always be in doubt.   There will be happy correlations and the weaving of suppositions, but correlations and suppositions do not a causal link make.   This causes me no difficulty at all

Back to the report, and one of the anchor points of understanding so often missed or glossed over:

‘The relationship between social policy and play is not straight forward. Play is not only an activity that takes place in discrete spaces and at prescribed times; it is not something that can simply be ‘provided’ by adults, but is an act of co-creation that emerges opportunistically from an assemblage of interdependent and interrelated factors. This concept of ‘assemblage’ is used throughout the report and is worth some consideration at this point.’

‘We have used it to refer to ad hoc groupings of diverse factors that can include people and their relationships, histories, material and symbolic artefacts, technologies, desires, and so on – the list is of course endless and defies representation through precise language. Assemblages are not fixed entities but are more akin to ‘events’; they and the factors that combine to co-create them have properties of emergence, opportunism, multiplicity and indeterminacy, meaning that they are open and responsive to what happens along the way. [A particular assemblage]… will never be repeated again in exactly the same way, nor could it have been planned in a deterministic manner, although some appreciation of the factors that may combine over time to make it possible can be developed, and it is this that we attempt to represent in this report.’

This suggests that the very way decisions are made needs to be questioned and, along with that, the forms of ‘evidence’ and justifications adduced to endorse those decisions.  If we’re dealing with ‘ad hoc groupings of diverse factors…’ that defy representation ‘through precise language’, that have properties of ‘indeterminacy’, assemblages that ‘will never be repeated again in exactly the same way’ and that cannot be planned in a ‘deterministic manner’ then – and hoorah! to this – we can sling out any number of management manuals and quality assurance schemes that are predicated precisely on qualities distinct, not to say opposite, to the ones given above.  Giddy with pleasure (though by no means assured that the report’s authors would endorse my interpretation), I invite you to read on:

‘… it should be appreciated that there is no universally applicable, linear, cause-effect relationship between what adults plan for play and children’s actual use of space, time and facilities. Whilst certain general principles can be identified (and indeed have been in the Play Sufficiency Assessment documentation), the conditions under which children’s playful dispositions are actualised are complex, dynamic and contextual. Our experience in play research and play policy strongly suggests that if the Measure is to achieve its ambitious and highly laudable aims, local authorities’ ability to work with both broad general principles and the complexities and multi-dimensionality of children’s play will be critical.’

This ‘ability to work with both broad general principles and the complexities and multi-dimensionality of children’s play…’ implies the need for decision-makers and assessors alike to make informed, sensitive, always-open-to-doubt-and-challenge judgments.  Yet, too often, there is flight from judgment making; and some approaches to assessment and management appear predicated on the idea that individual judgment is a form of contamination, tainting the objective, dispassionate view.

Judgment works outwards from general principles and values, not from the attempted precision of rules.  And here, once again, the report’s authors are both insightful and straightforward, refusing to don the mantle of an assumed ‘objectivity’, eschewing therefore the approach taken by any number of ultimately vacuous evaluations.  Under the heading, ‘Limitations of the research’, they stress that:

‘It should also be acknowledged that we as researchers are not outside of this process, and we have drawn on our particular ways of knowing… our intuitions and our experiences of supporting opportunities for children’s play at a range of levels, which for each of us spans over three decades. In addition, given the complex assemblage of influences on how the Play Sufficiency Duty has played out at macro and meso levels, we should also acknowledge our part in this, which includes dialogue with the Play Wales officers, responding to consultations on key pieces of legislation affecting children’s play over the last decade and a key role in the seminar for senior local government officers and others held in 2010. In addition, our role as educators and trainers means that some of those involved in developing PSAs have been students on our undergraduate and postgraduate programmes at the University of Gloucestershire or have participated in conferences and workshops where we have played a role. This inevitably shapes, consciously and pre-consciously, the material itself and our analysis of it.’

I like this enormously.  For long there has been a misplaced commitment to what amounts to ‘spurious objectivity’ – the masking of what are essentially subjective judgments by, for example, donning them in numbers that are essentially meaningless as quantifiers. One sees this latter tendency in risk assessments, in interview scoring systems, and the attribution of scores to, say, outdoor quality space evaluations.

This tendency to flee from, indeed to be embarrassed by, the possibility of subjective judgment, is rooted in an overly rationalist world view.  One which holds that the essence of decision-making is formulating, cataloguing and identifying regularities thereby rendering them susceptible to rule-like, pre-determined  stipulations; or by assigning activities, behaviours and preferences to hard and fast categories.   In its essentials this is an aspect-blind world view, one that fails to account for the complexity, variability and unpredictability of the actual lives we humans live.  If unrestrained, the effects of this world view are profound and damaging.

By way of contrast, it must  strike us as at least a  little odd that in those areas of our lives most important, most sensitive, most dear to us – relationships with family, lovers, friends and our children are obvious examples – we know that rule book and scales have only a limited part to play in the judgments we make.  Similarly, our responses to music, theatre, painting or film, and much else, are not governed by objectivity for it can only take us so far in these instances.  

‘There is a powerful sense that if only we can know all there is to know about a particular social problem, it can be addressed through rational decision making processes. Although policy analysts have challenged this ‘rational actor model’ view of governance, it is surprisingly enduring, and has been kept alive by the processes of New Public Management that have seen an explosion of measuring approaches such as audits, quality assurance schemes, performance indicators and so on. Whilst these procedures are useful, they are often less than an exact science, sometimes giving a false picture of ‘facts’, and are but one element in an assemblage that forms the basis of policy decisions.’

Toolkits

I suspect readers of this piece will have encountered any number of ‘toolkits’ on any number of subjects. Useful though they may sometimes be, too little attention is given to their limitations, emphasis always being on their assumed utility.  The report has something to say on this:

‘The toolkit includes a number of tools to assist local authorities… including questions to ask children and young people, and access and quality audits of space. These form a helpful basis for beginning to think about how spaces and services might support children’s play; however, the itemising of specifics (such as access for wheelchairs into a building, or the naming of specific resources intended to enable particular play experiences) can also create a false sense of both causality and sufficiency, especially when applied mechanistically and then entered into an audit sheet and ticked off. For example, the fact that there is wheelchair access to a building means that it can be accessed by people who use wheelchairs and not necessarily that it is inclusive of disabled people. Similarly, merely providing resources does not mean that the children will necessarily play with them in the way intended, if indeed at all, given the huge variables in existence including the desires and capacities of each child, the context, the sense of permission or otherwise, the opportunistic and spontaneous nature of playing and so on. These forms of knowledge are helpful but need to be appreciated in the contingent context of such local assemblages.’

Having just returned from the USA, the point made about wheelchair access has particular resonance.  Many I met in the USA felt that the Americans with Disabilities Act, though infused with good intention, was overly rule-based and replete in over-stipulation, the effect of which was to focus on questions of access in a narrow, mechanistic way.  Thus the Act leaves little scope for trade-offs and the striking of balances between multiple, beneficial objectives, reducing the complexity and multiplicity of disability to what amounts to a mono-focus on one aspect of human experience and possibility.

‘ … knowledge production and management require concepts and issues to be named, classified and sometimes quantified. Whilst this is necessary in order to render data useable, it also closes down other ways of knowing or making sense of the issues under scrutiny…. there is also value in retaining an appreciation of vagueness to resist the totalising potential of such categorisation, particularly when dealing with something as complex and heterogeneous as the ways in which children find and take time and space for playing in their everyday lives.’

Final words

Before turning again to the report and the conclusion of this piece, it’s necessary to say that the take on the report offered here is mine alone.  Nothing I say is to be construed as having agreement from the authors.  Electronic copies of the research report are available upon request at info@playwales.org.uk.  The weblink to information about the research report is: http://www.playwales.org.uk/eng/research

The final words in this piece will be from ‘Leopard Skin Wellies, a Top Hat and a Vacuum Cleaner Hose’. The overt, direct subject of the report is of course play and the Welsh play sufficiency duty.  But it is more than that, inevitably given the knowledge base, and what I take to be philosophical and value dispositions of its authors.  It looks at that point (or those points) where the complex, glorious messiness of humanness intersects with public policy; not only in terms of what such policy should be, but how and, implicitly whether, the instruments and dispositions of decision-makers and institutions as currently configured are suited to nurturing and extending the enchantments of this, our shared, messy, human world.

‘Generally, there is an expectation at this stage of producing a research report that it should tie everything together, say what has worked, what hasn’t, make recommendations for the future and so on. In this particular report, we resist this to an extent, and we give our reasons here before presenting our conclusions. Children’s play is emergent, unpredictable and opportunistic: it erupts whenever conditions allow. These conditions are, as has been emphasised throughout this report, a complex assemblage of material, symbolic, temporal, social, political and cultural factors. The Statutory Guidance and the PSA toolkit and template identify general principles that are likely to support these conditions. At the same time, playing cannot be separated from everything else that happens in children’s lives, and whilst general principles can be applied, each life and each situation will be unique and the nature and impact of interventions emanating from the Play Sufficiency Duty will vary.

‘Given the messiness and complexity of the issue we do not assert single or absolute truths or causal explanations from the analysis. The discussion here is one perspective, and there are many others at play that rub up against each other, coalesce, contest, fall away and so on. There is no single blueprint for success and there are no concrete answers, particularly as the very notion of what constitutes sufficiency will itself change as things happen. In implementing the Play Sufficiency Duty, local authorities are working to support children’s play, which itself defies capture, classification and location.’

 

 

One response to “As Port Wine and Peaty Whisky: a report to savour

  1. Thank you for this review, Bernard. Research and reports of this nature are always political and we are grateful to have been give the freedom and licence – and support – of Play Wales and other participants in the study to take this approach. We felt that this innovative piece of legislation – and children themselves – deserved this kind of challenge to dominant ways of knowing.

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