Holding fast: It’s not the evidence that does it

It is not a minor matter that those of us at the forefront of thinking about, developing, and promoting risk-benefit assessment have been particularly attentive to language, to the meaning of words and the order in which they are placed.  Thus we have taken HAZARD’s hand, twirled it round a bit, and shown its positive, sunny side.  Similarly, we have suggested to CONTROL MEASURES that it should stand in the corner, reflect upon its past errors,  and not rejoin us until it has developed a more sophisticated, nuanced approach to its purposes.  And we have welcomed, and made permanent guest of honour, BENEFITS.  She sits at the head of the table, gets served first and, so to speak, frames the rest of the proceedings.

This is not about risk-benefit assessment

But this piece is not about risk-benefit assessment.  It’s about the importance of saying certain things, of not losing one’s voice, of holding fast to key ideas and values, even when they seem to have no immediate purchase.

The evidential hunt

I make no complaint that once again ‘play’ is on the evidential hunt, apparently to demonstrate to Government just how functional it is in helping to meet the objectives of, for example, improving school performance, enlivening the public realm, contributing to community safety, countering ‘anti-social behaviour’ (in quotes because it is a despicable too wide-ranging term that should be avoided), and preparing children to be economically productive when they enter adulthood.  And no doubt much else.

As I’ve mentioned before, such evidence that is adduced will not persuade Government one way or the other.  Though it may say it has been persuaded, and we may wish to believe it.

Take a look at our friends over there

Incidentally, it will come as no surprise that the Arts are up to much the same sort of thing – on the evidential hunt.  Here’s a quote from a joint RSA/Arts Council ‘State of the Arts: Shaping the future of culture’ paper (October 2013), ‘Towards Plan A: A new political economy for arts and culture‘:

‘We need to review our achievements and consider our potential, think how our goals relate to our nation’s wider social and economic objectives – and how we can connect to these.  The four papers here consider our contribution to the national balance sheet, to education, to urban economies and to the general health of society. The papers make crucial suggestions, and from them emerge two strong themes.’

But there is counter-thought.  This reported by the Guardian Culture Professional Network: 

‘…the  result of its State of the Arts strand in partnership with the RSA is essentially an exhortation to the cultural sector to provide better evidence to government. Secretaries of state for culture and education on both sides of the party divide have pleaded for more evidence, particularly on economic impact.

‘But that’s not what’s needed. National and local governments don’t take decisions about arts funding based on evidence, however convincing it is. Instead, they act in the context of the wider economic picture, and in light of their own prejudices, world-views, ideologies and instincts. That’s what makes politics, politics, rather than managerialism.’

The State of (Free) Play

If I have any interest in play, that interest rests on two pillars, notwithstanding any secondary fretwork that attaches to these foundations: the value of here-and-now experience; the value and actualisation of that elusive concept ‘freedom’ – free play as initiation into and embodiment of that idea.  It is therefore not a primary concern to me whether or not play contributes to future-orientated objectives, though I’m sure it does. Just as I’m sure that army boot training and synchronised swimming does in some way or another.

Both those pillars have been steadily hacked away from at least the advent of Thatcherism. It being understood that New Labour was merely the perpetuation of that ideology by another name, save for some cosmetic ameliorations.  Little has changed, except to the extent that the position has deteriorated still further.

The idea that free play could or can secure a firm foothold within either past or present political and value orientations strikes me as pretty well near absurd.  To sustain such an optimistic stance would require that the whole prevailing ideological framework is turned upside down; or that, somehow, fragments of a child or teenager’s life – the potentially playful bits – can be separated from, rendered immune to, the prevailing orthodoxies that has as its foundational pillars:

The need to test, assess, measure, generally quantify ‘results’ or ‘outcomes’.  This of course predicated on an idea of ‘worthwhileness’.  Something is worthwhile only if it can lead to identifiable, quantifiable results;

That childhood is primarily a preparation for the future, in particular an economic future.  The effect of this is to read back and judge the worth of  child/teenager activities and interests by the restricted criteria and objectives appropriate to adult economic life;

That surveillance, supervision, oversight and containment of children and childhood is always required.  This has two forms of expression, institutional and personal: the institutional, through schools, ASBOS, Dispersal Areas, and so forth; the personal, parents in the grip of anxiety about academic performance, about kids being ‘out and about’ in the public realm, about the hyper-competitive adult world children are doomed to enter and for which they must be prepared by initiation, not into agency and the fears and joys of freedom, but into timetabled, supervised routines.

By way of an aside, an anecdote: In what I take to be an example of training children to internalise their own oppression, on visiting a school recently, I saw upon the school hall wall a large collage, probably made by the children. The title was ‘Our School Rules’. The first rule: ‘We follow instructions’. The second, surely intended as a demonstration of bathos, was ‘We keep our hands and feet to ourselves’.  Clearly an institution with a refined sense of priorities.

Now take a look at the ‘public realm’.  Here the proliferation of privatised space, whether the shopping mall or the gated housing development, is squeezing out what we might call ‘free space’, spaces where one might legitimately be without oversight or hindrance.  To say nothing of the degree of surveillance and control (see above) that attaches to the ‘public’ realm.  Account need also be taken of the increase in housing densities which – perhaps with merit in housing stock terms – carry with it the danger of reducing still further the amount of ‘free’ or ‘in-between’ spaces available for general use and informal congregation.

And if you’re black, or poor, so much the worse for you.

In this wider context, a bit like the Arts, the best that can be achieved, and all that has been achieved – though we pray ardently for Wales –  are temporary ameliorations, the taking of some territory, then its loss, then a retaking, perhaps in  truncated form.  I’ve said before that, for example,  the Street Play project and Popup playgrounds, though perhaps necessary initiatives, constitute examples of accommodations with prevailing assumptions and limitations when what we’re really after is:

‘Children and teenagers being seen and heard in [unsupervised] shared public and communal space is the hallmark of a society at ease with itself’. PLAYLINK policy.

This article is not simply about reminding readers that the conventional forms of persuasiveness deployed:

‘… share the features of a ritual or a dance, where the moves are known in advance, and what counts is the grace and astuteness with which the pre-set moves are made.  The evidence adduced in favour of this or that policy or proposal is not the primary determinate of social policy, it is values and ideologies that are the ultimate determinates…’

It is accepted that participation in this dance or ritual is required.  But it is way, way far from being sufficient.   The danger is that it  becomes a distraction, draining energy and time from the exploration of the longer term. Allowed to claim it has more strategic, long term significance than, if my somewhat dismalist account of the state of play resonates,  is justified.

Holding fast

Responding to the national and local state’s requirements  will get us only so far – it will not secure permanent territory to have and to hold.  The field of view needs to be widened,  a broader audience reached.

There is a need to ‘make the weather’, rather than simply be subject to it.  The terms of the debate must be changed.  That is the overriding task.  

To take this article back to where it began, the words we use, the language we deploy, must be  appropriate to the subject under view: play.   We must avoid sliding into self-censorship. Rather, it must be said over and over again, in reports, funding applications, public pronouncements and lobbying meetings, that the value of here-and-now immediate experience counts, has value in itself; and that play is inextricably bound up in ideas and ideals about personal freedom and agency – and a society that proclaims belief in both had better attend to creating the spaces – time and place – where such qualities may be realised.

Yes, it’s a long term haul, not least because  past and current political dispensations combine with – and also generate – societal concerns and anxieties that systematically undermine what needs to be achieved.    It’s been said many, many times before,  and the case against has yet to be made, but until ways are found  to address society directly as parents, as voters, little sustainable change will be secured.   Local project work that engages with local communities may be part of this, but only a small part.

Somewhere in the thicket of my thought is also this: if ideas about the here-and-now, of agency and control over one’s own space and time are considered (somewhat reductively) as broadly quality of life issues, one can’t help feeling that many adults are seething with discontents about the nature of their pressurised lives.  What adults have lost, or are losing, mirrors  that of our youngsters.  

The language of the here-and-now and personal agency may have more purchase than has been recognised.

13 responses to “Holding fast: It’s not the evidence that does it”

  1. Great readingg your post


  2. […] decision to focus on measurable outcomes has prompted a lively debate here and in other places. The Play Return does not directly engage with these broader philosophical and ethical issues, […]


  3. […] a similar vein Bernard Spiegal, my regular collaborator on risk, wrote an article a few months back questioning the merits of evidence-gathering exercises (a piece prompted by my […]


  4. Thanks for the post!
    I do some work in the field of play and playspaces here, in Moscow.
    The topic about evidence-based everything is very actual in Russia.
    From one side there’s an obvious lack of evidence-based decisions but on the other hand I’ve got a funny experience when people with well-set intentions (even not from government) got stuck with this evidence-proofing everything..
    When we went to study in Germany our colleagues were surprised that we were craving for evidence in the fields where they’ve actually never thought about research as “everybody can see that…”.
    Though I personally love to have good data about things I promote it seems that sometimes evidence-based method transforms into a defensive mechanism which helps to postpone or reject unwished decisions (“lets think about it one more time”).
    And it’s really a question for me – how to facilitate a dialog in cases like this?
    Should it be a hunt for evidence? Or something else?


  5. I yield to nobody in my cynicism about the motives of Westmnster politicians who suddenly profess an interest in play, and express that interest by demanding a re-invention of the wheel for their exclusive benefit. But, to while away the tedious hours waiting for the collapse of capitalism, we might as well keep ourselves busy by going along with a charade of evidence-based policy making. A few benefits to children might come out of it. It’s pleasant to think that a direct appeal to parents and voters on behalf of children’s freedom to play might bypass tedious and morally compromising backdoor lobbying, but as Bernard rightly says, this is not a strategy that the play movement has so far been able to wield with great success. By all means let’s keep on trying this approach – some groups are already having a go – but isn’t it better to try and use all the means at our disposal, rather than criticise potential allies for using tools that we ourselves do not favour?


    1. Mark, thanks for taking time to comment. Always good to hear from you. Couple of points, I don’t think it is a question of cynicism, or at least not mainly that. At base, there are different ‘world views’, and, in part, I suspect that ‘Westminster’ or the ‘Establishment’ is locked into a world view antithetical to what is, broadly speaking, ours. And of course this goes way beyond play. Rather, how one responds to ideas about play and what play entails, symbolises or is expressive of, that antithetical world view, one which cannot easily, if at all, accommodate us.

      Just one more point, I am not sure if it is to me you refer when you say ‘rather than criticise potential allies..’. The blog (and a previous one, ‘Ritual and evidence’), was not about criticising anyone. It was an attempt to look at matters from a different point of view. The degree to which that was useful or successful, is another matter.
      regards, Bernard


      1. Hello Bernard
        Thanks for your reply to my somewhat testy response to your blog and some of the earlier comments it attracted. I’m certainly not accusing you personally of criticising potential allies (or not without good reason, at least!) What I had in mind was the “narcissism of small differences” that I think does afflict some of the debate within the play world concerning what to do about our predicament. To make my position clear, I agree that evidence on its own is rarely enough to change policy, certainly not when the policies we want are deeply challenging to establishment world views, as you remind us. So we ought to be thinking about politicians’ emotional, as much as their intellectual conversion (leaving aside for a moment the systemic problem of capitalism). I have the greatest admiration for those courageous and charismatic enough to attempt that task, as I have for those who successfully deploy “propaganda by deed” and popular pressure to influence politicians in favour of freedom to play. Yet we also have to engage with the politicians on terrain of their choosing. I acknowledge that once we start talking about outcomes, we are using the devil’s language, and we should take care to undergo periodic de-toxification, courtesy of our peers. BUT – and here I return to my starting point – we have no realistic alternative to talking with the devil, and so we must use language that the devil understands. And if we’re going to do that, we might as well speak the lingo as fluently as possible.


      2. Mark, thanks once again for taking time to comment, and in the terms you do. This all needs a lot more thinking – and taking – about. It’s complicated, there is no easy, simple mono-track way forward. It’s interesting, but the way I read some comments, including those coming my way but not public as such, seem to express a sense of hurtedness, as if people’s good intent was in question. Which of course it is not. But that is not a good basis for taking us forward
        There is need for discussion, much scratching of heads, and mutual pondering. Once again, some non-public comments have thought the points made in the original blog worth saying. This has nothing to do with being right of wrong, but identifying something worth talking about.

        Picking up one of your points. ‘…we must use language that the devil understands [and if we so do] we might as well speak the lingo as fluently as possbile’. Two immediate thoughts: we are in fact incredibly adept at speaking the ‘devil’s language’. Forget for a moment the current national level evidence-gathering exercise now being undertaken (and which I support), just look at almost any local project’s grant application and end of grant ‘outcomes’ report, and you’ll see evidence conjured from here there and anywhere, all tailored to whatever the funder’s current interests might be. Yet, more widely, there is danger in self-censoring our own voice, of absorbing a language ultimately inadequate to serving the purposes we require of it. But what is entailed by that last thought? Well, that’s for discussion…


  6. I have to confess to a profound sadness on reading this Blog as I feel it is the antithesis of my approach to life. I believe that progress is the result of positive engagement and debate and that Government, whether you like it or not, wields the power and the purse strings. Not to engage (which is what I read your blog to infer), seems to me to achieve little other than to retain one’s own moral high ground. I also believe that the two rounds of funding from the last Government were achieved through some intensive engagement and although the outcome was far from perfect, it did significantly benefit children.

    My own view is that is that we have a responsibility as adults to engage, risk, even welcome, compromise in order to make marginal and slow progress. We have to accept that under our own form of imperfect democracy we will experience setbacks. We must not be put off by these but pick ourselves up and re-enter the debate, re-motivated and even more determined. I sincerely hope that that is what I, the Children’s Play Policy Forum and Play England are doing. I make no apologies for it, although I do sympathise with those whose anger and frustration make this a near impossibility.


    1. My dear, Robin. I welcome your personal manifesto and regret that I occasioned some sadness. Quite unintentional.

      But you have me wrong, for I was quite specific that there was little choice but to engage in, for example, the evidential hunt and to feed potential funders what they feel they need. As I say to Mark in a separate response to his comment, ‘The blog (and a previous one, ‘Ritual and evidence’), was not about criticising anyone. It was an attempt to look at matters from a different point of view. The degree to which that was useful or successful, is another matter.’

      Now, Robin, you know me a little, so surely the idea that I am able to detect, let alone stand upon, the ‘moral high ground’ should strike you as a little odd and most unlikely. It’s also the case, of course, that I am deeply implicated in the processes that I examine. No moral high ground for me. But a bit of ducking and weaving, perhaps. Best wishes, Bernard


  7. Lots to get stuck into here Bernard – and thanks for the link to my post. I’m planning a substantive reply. But in the meantime, for a demonstration of the application of good evidence, check this out:


  8. Nick, great as always to receive comments from you. Yes, ‘you’ve said it’, but I fear our combined efforts, and our friends, may not be able to do the overarching job you rightly suggest needs doing.

    But there is something you by implication touch on: this is about politics. ‘Play’ – to use a shorthand – has devoted much effort in addressing the formal nation and local state; our general approach has been to lobby in fairly conventional ways. Which may be necessary – but is not sufficient; and may even be, if not a distraction, then a narrow uni-focus. It is parents and voters that need to be addressed – though I accept it seems an enormous, perhaps hopeless task. We need at least to consider how parents/voters might be addressed directly, though we may end up saying this is not what needs to be done; or that it does need to be done, but we can’t do it. This notion has been around for years, but somehow never gains traction. So much is done ‘only if funded’ – not, I think, the wellspring of political campaigning or action.


  9. Hi Bernard. Wow! Brilliantly thought out and written. I can’t really argue with a single word. I got here from Tim Gill’s web site and his call for evidence and was feeling bad because I haven’t really got any to give him. I have many, many stories and anecdotes, from my own and fellow Playworkers’ observations, about the positive difference free play experiences can make in the lives of children now and for their futures, but it doesn’t seem that these count, and that frustrates me.
    But whilst your analysis is spot on, I’m left wanting a little more on the ‘what is to be done’ front. It all points to one thing, in my opinion, and just saying things over and over again, or using the right language, won’t change anything because its more fundamental than that.
    The stucture of our society is diametrically opposed to the sorts of freedoms and agency over space and time that you espouse. And it doesn’t matter which current political party is in power as they all follow the same neo-liberal, capitalistic values.
    There – I’ve said it.
    Capitalism – it’s not good for children, nor indeed 99% of society, nor the future of our planet. Let’s get rid of it. Replace it with something more like play, that values personal space, time and freedoms.
    How to do that? Well that’s a good qusetion, which I hope to discuss with you in the near future. Maybe in Eastbourne this week? If not, then soon.


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About Me

My name is Bernard Spiegal, I write mainly about Palestine/Israel and related issues; sometimes other stuff too


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