Play England: Whither goest thou?

The newly minted independent  Play England is to have its first AGM on the 28 November. It’s potentially a significant event, and that alone justifies sharing some thoughts.

But first, congratulations and thanks to the current Play England trustees are in order.  I have the sense that negotiating the decoupling of Play England from NCB has, for the trustees, been a long, often arduous, time consuming – voluntary time freely given – not always easy process.  But, through their endeavours, an independent Play England has now been bequeathed us. ‘Us’,  Play England’s members.  So, thanks to the trustees for staying with this, for seeing it through.

Independent

It is not the intention of this piece to veer overly towards philosophical ruminations, but there is a distinction worth making and it is this.  True, PE is now formally an independent, self-governing body. But ‘independence’ carries greater meaning than simply a formal designation of legal status.  In the sense that it is to be hoped it will apply, it must express a certain independence of mind and capacity for independent action.  Thus we might say that PE has achieved separation from NCB – but its relish for independent thought and action will be gauged by the decisions it makes from now on in.  And here, much will – or should – depend on the views of its members.

This focus on independence directs attention to consideration of the conditions that will either enhance or diminish its ability to speak and act independently.

Time for reflection

My hope is the PE will not rush to generate funding applications nor contrive to construct ‘deliverable’ programmes.  Rather, PE will allow itself the time and space to reflect on what the role of PE should be. It is not a simple matter to reach a conclusion, and inevitably there will be different views about this.  But it is surely helpful for PE to take for itself the time and space to look critically at its history as the necessary prerequisite to shaping its independent future.

My own view is that it would be an error for an independent PE to continue what for me has always been the rather unfortunate policy of running, or being responsible for, service delivery projects. I understand that there are any number of motivations for pursuing this approach, not least that funders tend to want to support something called ‘delivery’ at the ‘front-end’.  But the funding tail can end up – and indeed many times does end up – wagging the organisational dog.

The temptation to follow this trend is to be avoided. PE should not, as it moves forward, allow itself to be a service delivery agency. No doubt some people will disagree.  But that is what a period of reflection allows – different views can be expressed and discussed.

Who or what should be ‘represented’ by Play England?

I’m not sure whether I am about to waste some words, and your time, in opposing what may be a straw man, summoning a danger that does not in fact exist.  But in case the notion has some purchase, I’ll state my own view.  The notion is that an independent PE should in some way ‘represent the play sector’.

It is not clear to me what might be meant by ‘play sector’.  There is not in fact one, homogenous play sector.  It comprises, rather, a range of different, sometimes competing, interests and perspectives.  The idea that a play national body could in some meaningful way represent all the interests and tendencies is neither tenable not desirable.

To the degree that a charitable organisation can be thought of as a representative body, PE is there to reflect the views of its members. But ideas about ‘representation’ can take us only so far in terms of charitable organisations. Left unexamined, a commitment to, or belief in, simple notions of representation can distort the nature of decision-making.  A charity is not a trade union nor an industry lobby group and therefore ‘representing its members’ is not its primary function or responsibility. (This, incidentally,is why I have always opposed organisations or companies having a membership vote.  I am, however, happy for them to be non-voting subscribers.) Rather, members and trustees’ attention and endeavours are directed away from their own interests towards meeting the perceived needs and wants of beneficiaries, in this case children and teenagers in respect of their play. (There is of course the temptation to lapse into viewing one’s own interests as automatically neatly aligned with those of the charity’s intended beneficiaries).

It is the case that trustees have particular and formal responsibilities in respect of charitable law that do not fall on members.  However, viewed through the perspective of ethics, both trustees and members are morally obliged to focus on the beneficiaries, not their own interests. And, certainly so far as trustees are concerned, charity law is a stranger to the concept of representation, a point sometimes lost on local authority ‘representatives’ or other sectional interests.  This again emphasises the mistake of thinking PE should represent a play sector, or indeed any other body or entity.

Black, ethnic, religious, cultural minorities

I’ll not apply Greg Dyke’s characterisation of the BBC  – ‘hideously white’ – to the play world establishment, if only because I would not have it said of anyone I know and like that they are remotely ‘hideous’.  But that the play establishment is overwhelmingly white in what might be called its upper echelons can hardly be gainsaid.   (I say immediately PLAYLINK is no better in this matter, for shame.)  This contrasts both with many of play provision’s staff and volunteers, and of course the kids who actually play, or want to, and who come from a wide range of backgrounds.

It is not in any straightforward way a matter of ensuring some sort of representation of this or that minority, some of the reasons why not dealt with in the previous section.  But there is a wrongness about the current almost non-existent minority presence within play establishment bodies.  It strikes me as an urgent matter to understand and address the visible absence of minorities, one aspect of which may be that there are thus far unacknowledged structural or relational barriers to their wider participation.

What role should an independent Play England’s fulfil?

This obviously is a key question. A period of critique and reflection should better enable it to answer that question. For myself, I tend towards valuing the role the Children Play Council fulfilled, and believe a good case can be made for PE to be smaller, more strategic, more policy focused than entanglements with frontline delivery will allow.

There is one area that has been spoken about for all the time I have been involved in play, and was no doubt spoken about for some time before. Words have thus far never translated into action. The words expended have been on the subject, ‘Is there is a need for public campaigning aimed at generating voter support for play?’

I can’t believe the correct answer is ‘No’. Nevertheless, nothing has been done. In part for the quite reasonable reason that no one quite knows how to go about it. Or if they do, they have not been particularly vocal.

Whether or not play should take to the streets and hustings and embark on voter focused campaigning is  surely something that needs to be seriously discussed by our new independent Play England.   I recognise that this subject takes us way beyond our – forgive the cliché – ‘comfort zone’.  That zone being occupied by professionals and quasi-professionals, good at Government and Funding and Policy speak, a world that primarily talks to itself.  To go beyond that would constitute a radical departure.

Even in the case of a ‘yes’ answer – that is, ‘yes’ public facing campaigning is required – it does not follow that PE is the organisation to do it.  And if it is, it is work that cannot be done alone.

Funding

There was a time when I was an accredited NCVO Assured Consultant, a scheme seemingly designed to demonstrate the flaws and limitations of at least some quality assurance schemes. No matter, it meant I worked as a – dread word – ‘consultant’ to any number of voluntary organisations, large and small.  So far as governance was concerned, one could categorise the actual forms of governance – as distinct from the formal or constitutional position – under four broad headings:

  1. Staff led
  2. Funder led
  3. Staff/funder led
  4. Trustee led.

This is not a disquisition on governance in the charitable sector, so the dangers and errors accompanying the first three need not in detail trouble us here.  But the typology does help to illuminate what for me is an important point.

Whilst it is the case that service delivery organisations, broadly speaking, are totally dependent on external funding, this need not be the case for more strategic, policy oriented – perhaps campaigning – organisations.  That some funds are needed, is obvious. But funding can also act as an encumbrance, can create unbalanced relationships between funder and recipient, perhaps most sharply felt when the national or local state or its agencies are dispensing largesse.  Such funding can have an unwarranted muting effect whereby things that need to be said, or objected to out loud, are silenced or modified, thus compromising both the spirit and practice of independence.

That is why I am anxious that an independent PE takes pause before seeking funds. Where funds are sought has a potential bearing on what an organisation is able to say, able to do.   I suspect that there are funders, almost certainly not the standard ports of call – i.e. Lottery, Children in Need etc – that stand to the side of the outcome driven, service delivery oriented funding bodies.  Whether this is correct, bears examination.

There is another aspect to this.  So inured to the need for funding have we become – this partly a consequence of the proliferation of remunerated staff within the sector who have their own, perfectly legitimate, personal requirements for funding (I do not stand to one side of this) – that this can obscure the fact that, in the same way as trustees give of their time voluntarily, so others have that choice.  Not in order to fulfil a trustee role, but to contribute to working groups, formulation of papers and so forth. The knowledge, skills and talents exist to a very considerable degree among ourselves – it may be the time to call on these more directly than has hitherto been the case.  Of course, many of us (not least, me) need to turn a penny or two in doing this sort of work ‘professionally’, but in practice there is likely to be plenty of scope for unremunerated, useful  endeavour that does not at the same time snatch the bread from our lips.

As will be seen, I am attracted to the notion that we expend energy on standing on our own feet.  It is not a small point that significant social change has always been prompted and sustained, not by state or agency funding, but by organisations and entities unencumbered by obligation or under contract to power.  The churches and religious bodies are good examples of this, as are organisations such as Liberty.

Endword

I end where I began: my main plea is that Play England takes time to pause to consider its past, the better to shape its future.

6 responses to “Play England: Whither goest thou?

  1. Hi Bernard (and Nick). Great piece Bernard and the points you raise are both justified and well made. Having been Vice Chair for most of PE’s life and occasional acting Chair, quite apart from my passion for an incorporated independent voice for children’s play, I feel a sort of duty to respond to your blog.

    First it wonderful to be free and viable and to be able to stop thinking about achieving that freedom and begin to think about the future. We have already had a “vision” day, which no doubt Nicola will talk about at the AGM, which brings me to my second and perhaps most important point.

    Do come to the AGM on the 28th November if you want to be part of the debate about the future activity of PE, there will be an opportunity for people to express their views for the Trustees to consider. It is important though to remember that ultimately the Trustees carry the legal responsibility for the viability, strategy and delivery of what ever we decide..

    My second point is that I believe there are functions of delivery for PE that are not competitive but could enable and facilitate others in a cooperative way. The FTC is an example. We all agree that PE should avoid competing with other members or others who are effectively delivering in their own right. I guess OPAL is a good example of that.

    Finally there is the point about delivery. I accept the criticism that was made about delivery overtaking some of the core objectives that were originally ascribed to PE, but, personally, as I am sure you know, I would rather have seen those impure programmes than not, the pudding was worth the cost. And I believe that we have to accept the least worse option in this regard, which will involve delivery, what we have to ensure is that we do not lose sight in the process of members needs and wishes and that there really is a net benefit to children in terms of the Charter.

    I am really looking forward to the AGM and would ask, once again, everyone who has an interest in play to be there.

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    • Robin,
      Good to hear from you here, and thanks for comments. I’ll use your comment as a hook to hang a couple of thoughts.

      The first is not a comment about PE in particular, but a more general one. To summarise, I wonder about ‘the road not taken’ – the ‘road not taken’ not being fully considered in any assessment of past decisions.

      There is, I speak generally, often a tendency to see past decisions as either inevitable or ‘ultimately’ desirable the indicator being simply that somehow the organisation has made it to now, notwithstanding any costs or downsides associated with the original decision. It’s a form of thinking that almost automatically makes every decision the right one.

      The second musing is this: would it not be interesting for PE to indulge itself in a thought experiment and pose to itself question along the lines of, ‘Are there particular benefits in not seeking state or stage agency funding?’. ‘What, if any, freedoms might PE gain or lose by such approach?’. Alongside this could be questions along the lines of ‘What if PE had only a small, but ‘unencumbered’, income, say somewhere between £10,000 – £60,000,?’ ‘Unencumbered’ meaning free from the sort of funding conditions that bodies such as the Lottery require.

      These thoughts obviously go the question of the meaning of ‘independence’, its form, content and scope. Such questions might even form the basis of short speculation papers, bounced between trustee and members. By the way, it should not be presumed from this note that I have a final, definitive position on these questions.

      Finally, by way of an aside, coincidental with these musings, I encountered two organisations that as a matter of policy do not seek certain sorts of funding; one is a local organisation very active in its area; the other is Compassion in Care at http://www.compassionincare.com/ I point to this simply to indicate that these are real options, though whether suitable for PE is another question.

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      • Bernard, do you really think that we haven’t rejoiced in being unencumbered and considered these questions. If we end up not doing what you have suggested, please do not think that it is for want of consideration and if you know of a source of, say, £10-60,000 unencumbered money, we would be very grateful to know the source. It was a problem that beset Playlink in its original manifestation, wasn’t it?

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      • Hey, Robin, this comment trail could run and run! (though perhaps should not)

        I’ve had a hint about the rejoicing, but had no knowledge that unecumbered funding had been considered either in terms of it (a) being potentially desirable and (b) as practically realisable. There is no reason why I should know the latter – nor any other members. This not in the slightest a complaint. I simply trust
        that the AGM would get a report on trustee thinking and never thought that anything much need happen before that. Independent PE is, after all, ‘newly minted’ and trustees have, no doubt, have had quite enough to do.

        On a practical note – and no fundraiser I – settling for, say, £10,000 in the first instance will have different consequences to aiming for £60,000 (in the first instance). If the view is that the benefits of an unencumbered PE outweigh the risks (where would we be without RBA?), then it may well be worth considering in detail those risks and whether, for a period at least, they are worth taking. It would force PE back on itself, and the talents, skills and commitment of its members and other supporters. This could be a good thing in itself.

        As to getting any unencumbered funding at all, it may be worth looking at different sorts of trusts than those focused on direct ‘delivery’. Don’t know if that would work, but £10,000 is not a fortune and of course can be made up of smaller tranches. It may be that trustees (or designated members) approach such bodies in exploratory mode. No, I have no particular skill or knowledge in fundraising. But sometimes a little calculated naivety is not a bad thing. I persist in my conviction that money goes to a wothwhile idea. I can see in advance that there will be evidence to refute this wishful thinking.

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  2. Nick, thanks for commenting.

    I hope the second paragraph of my article made it quite clear that I greatly value the work you and your colleague trustees have done in steering PE, through the sometimes choppy seas, to independence. I mean here quite genuine appreciation.

    That independent status has only very recently been achieved and therefore historical decisions by the previous NCB/PE entity are not the responsibility of you and your colleagues. In any case,I may be in a minority – possibly of one – in taking a critical view of NCB/PE’s involvement in front line delivery. My stance goes way back to the Pathfinder/Playbuilder programme that I always felt was a mistake; or at least the role PE played in it.

    I recognise that you and your colleagues have inherited a front line delivery programme and, as I said in the original piece, I tend to think an independent PE should, in principle and in the future, steer away from direct involvement in such projects. But in saying this, I imply no criticism of how the now independent PE is running the current programme. My remarks were future directed.

    You may be right that I did not take sufficient account of Wild Network and Love Outdoor Play when formulating the question about ‘voter-facing’ campaigning. But that is a confession to agnosticism – ‘may’ – on the matter, not at this stage agreement.

    I may be digging a hole for myself – ‘stop digging’ is the usual advice in such circumstances – but I need to confess that I am not persuaded that Play Days have much purchase in campaigning terms, though that scepticism does not mean they have no value. One aspect of Play Day has much to do with self-celebration, a public expression of our – the ‘play world’, in loose terms – existence and faith. There are elements of a prayer meeting in the celebration – and there is nothing wrong with that.

    But the main point of my piece was the raising of questions, coupled with the hope that PE – trustees and members – will give itself time to reflect before embarking on long term initiatives. One gets the sense that we are ready for discussion, one to be undertaken without rancour or personalising the issues before us.

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  3. Wow, that’s the longest Trustee Nomination form I’ve ever read!
    Seriously though, you make some good points, especially around representation, and I can tell you that such things have been the topic of discussion at many Trustee meetings.
    I can’t agree with you that ‘nothing has been done’ in the form of campaigning though. What do you think Playday is all about, for instance? Play England has continued to campaign for children’s play as a partner in the Children’s Play Policy Forum and Play Safety Forum. We have supported other campaigns including the Wild Network and Love Outdoor Play.
    Also, every potential funding opportunity is discussed with regard to the positive and negative consequences that it might have on the organisation’s aims and objectives. We do not chase money just for the sake of it.
    I made the decision to join the Trustee Board partly in order to try and assist in the setting up of an independent Play England, as over-whelmingly wanted by the ‘membership’, and help in the arduous process of extricating ourselves from NCB (not an easy task), and also partly because, like you, I was concerned about the possible future direction of the organisation. In the process I have been completely impressed by the committment and integrity of my fellow Trustees, and much of what you say would resonate positively with them.
    This is an important time for the future of our national body that represents (however you would like to define it) children’s play and promotes a vision for England to be a country where everybody can fully enjoy their right to play throughout their childhood. Open and transparent discussion and decision making is to be encouraged, and I think this is a good contribution to the debate.

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