I want to pursue the discussion about ‘evidence’ as it affects, or is said to affect, policy and funding decisions about play. I allow myself this indulgence in part because I suspect I am at least partially responsible for provoking comment on the subject; and of course Tim Gill is also thoroughly culpable in this regard.
Before proceeding, however, it’s necessary to dispose of straw man arguments that suggest I am opposed to the collection and dissemination of evidence in support of play. A position which, if held, would be absurd.
Nevertheless, the case for evidence deserves some scrutiny, especially when it tips over into wishful thinking. But first the work of disposal.
Whilst generally it might be thought bad manners – a mere vanity – to quote oneself, in this case it offers the shortest route to reiterating one aspect of my position:
‘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‘
‘I do understand why we feel required to play the evidential game. I play it myself if required. In any case, my position does not require it to be asserted that there is no such thing as persuasive evidence. My concern is the lop-sided focus on particular forms of evidence.‘ (Emphasis added)
So far so clear: I do not in principle oppose the search for evidence and see that, from a pragmatic perspective, presenting evidence can achieve some gains in the short term, however tenuous and short-lived those gains might be. And I admit personal culpability in firing off evidence in support of this or that project whenever I thought it would oil the hinges of the policy or funding door I was trying to wrench open. Welcome to my glass house.
Not us alone
But the idea that evidence is or can be the ultimate salving balm that will objectively demonstrate to policy-makers that, look, here on our cast-iron rationalist plate, are the peer-reviewed research findings that, beyond peradventure, are unassailable and therefore: Give Us The Money, is surely naive wishful thinking.
Notice that we are not the only ones playing the evidential game. So up step the Arts, with its evidence; now Sport follows with its findings; and, don’t be shy, Music, tell us how bow strokes on violin will set the synapses zinging.
I’ll stick my neck out here and speculate that much or all the evidence adduced in support of, for example, the Arts, Sport, Music, and no doubt much else, will look pretty convincing. And each of the ’causes’ will have picked the evidence supporting their outcome claims with the fine discrimination of a gourmet. Unlikely that outcome comparisons will be made between the ’causes’; or, if so, only ones that appear to demonstrate parochial advantage.
The question to be asked here is straightforward: from a policy maker or funder’s perspective, faced with an array of evidence all of which appear to demonstrate that there are a number of more or less seemingly equally effective routes to generating the sort of outcomes desired (all about future something or other: school test results; employability, etc), by what criteria, then, will judgments about funding and policy content be made? There is only one place to go, and that is to criteria generated by political, ideological and value preferences – whether this is explicitly acknowledged or not. And for some years now, the dominant political and value landscape has been, and is, a fairly uncongenial place to pitch one’s tent. And that is why I hold to my view that:
‘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.’
That ameliorations are possible, and occur – fragile, temporary, subject to the ever-changing kaleidoscope of priorities – is not in doubt. But deep-rooted, durable, sustainable forward movement, that is harder to believe in or to demonstrate. (Though, as I always remind myself, Wales may yet prove a counter-example – something that is devoutly wished.)
What is to be done?
To my own question – what is to be done? – I am uncertain as to the answer. But let me shelve that question for a moment while I take an excursion around the ‘play scene’, the institutional play scene. Thinking about it may clear some ground.
Although obvious, it is perhaps not sufficiently noticed or remarked upon that in the UK at least there are play institutions that together can be said to comprise a ‘Play Establishment’. The four UK national play bodies together are key elements of it and, depending on where the boundary is drawn, other organisations too, though they may not be formally in commune with each other.
One definition of an Establishment is that it is, ‘An influential group within a specified profession or area of activity’ (Oxford Dictionary). I think the four national bodies ( and perhaps others) meet the definition and I add that that is a jolly good thing too. And of course, Government and its machinery form a particularly significant Establishment.
It is a feature of Establishments that, in general, each recognises the legitimacy of the other. Underpinning and reinforcing this legitimacy is a shared form of discourse marking out not only what may or may not be said, but also the forms of engagements considered appropriate. To be heard at all one must speak in a semi-specialised, restricted tongue, one that does not question the dominant political dispensation. Although intensely (lower case ‘p’) political in terms of the manoeuvring and drafting deftness deployed on any particular matter, overall the process has the effect of depoliticising what are essentially political matters. Negotiation and dialogue take on a seemingly neutral, technical, quasi-scientific aspect. It is here, in the depoliticised space, that talk about evidence and outcomes becomes the currency of choice.
In terms of the Play Establishment, so far as I am aware, it is not founded on anything resembling demonstrable, meaningful popular support. Rather, it comprises institutions that are in practice dependent on other institutions: charitable funders, the local and national state. The term ‘dependent’ here is not accidental. If one needs someone else’s money to do things, even just to exist, one is dependent. This dependency acts, of course, as a restraint on what can be said, what can be done.
This dependency is exacerbated by the growth in contractual, seemingly businesslike relationships between funders – now ‘clients’ – and fund-receiving organisations, now ‘service level’ providers . A charity bound-up in a service level agreement, or compelled to enter a competitive procurement process (the marketisation of the charitable sector), is likely to shy away from criticising its actual or potential client, even where the client – a local authority, for example – is a political entity, its mandate and authority, formally speaking at least, derived from the local popular will.
In addition, the national and other play bodies are generally registered charities, a status which carries benefits, but also limitations. This sense of structured containment is underscored by the passing into law of the Transparency of Lobbying, Non Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014 (the Lobbying Act, 2014) which at the very least generates uncertainty as to what constitutes legitimate political campaigning by charities at election times. One might see this Act as symbolising a more general limitation on a charity’s scope for hard-core political action.
So, overall, a combination of institutional structure, law, and market-place hostage taking results in a narrowing of political space, and a reduction in, and curtailment of, civil society’s capacity to act within it. And play is, at base, an intensely political matter.
Cleared ground: can we see clearly now?
If what I have described is broadly the case, it takes us to an old and hoary question: Should ‘play’ be more overtly political? Should it campaign? Should it aim, for example, to connect with parents, that is parents as potential or actual voters? And of course there are non-parents who understand and value what we are talking about.
I’ve asked ‘should’ questions. But there is also a ‘can’ question: Can play summon up the wherewithal to enter the overtly political fray? It may be that it should, but cannot in practice summon up the energy and commitment to undertake the task. Fair Play for Children, in a zestful comment on Tim Gill’s blog ‘Evidence is vital in making the case for play‘ is clear about the answer to the ‘should’ question:
“Play has always shied away from real campaigning, and yet that is what is now needed.”
But Arthur Battram (plexity), in one of his comment on the same article, touches on the ‘can’ question, and seems to be hinting at what might be called a self-imposed constraint that limits our capacity to act – dare I say it? – freely:
“‘Professionalisation’. What was done for love is now only done for pay, perhaps?”
This latter comment seems to me to be, at the very least, cousin to the sort of point I was making about institutional dependency.
To return to my own line of thinking, if what I have said about Establishments holds water, then it follows that even if the answer to the ‘should’ question is ‘yes’ (though note, I have not argued this here), the Establishment is constitutionally unable to fulfil the role of leading, and perhaps even formally participating in, the capital ‘P’ Political charge.
But be clear, this is not a criticism of the Establishment, it is simply acknowledging what it can and cannot do, recognising the constraints under which it operates. That it is alive to the constraints and acts within them is often an actual, and certainly a potential, benefit. We need a strong Establishment.
Nor is anything said here about the individuals – different people at different times – who populate the Establishment. They of course retain the right, as individuals, to act capital ‘P’ ‘Politically’ should they care to. That is a right we all share. In play, we might think of it as a yet unfulfilled reserve capacity. One that it may, or may not, be right to draw on.