It’s often hard to predict what will generate an active interest in an issue. The issue may have been around for a good deal of time, indeed may have been a source of worry or irritation but, somehow, the matter appears impenetrable, difficult to grasp.
Such, arguably, is how many play provision providers have felt and still feel about playground equipment and surfacing standards. Decisions are promulgated, they seem to bear a stamp of authority, yet there is a persistent sense of disconnect between decision-makers, and those affected by their pronouncements. The relevance of standards is asserted by the bodies that generate them, but in many of the settings affected by them, there is doubt. Such doubts hitherto have been muted, not channelled or organised, or, indeed, been the subject of much debate.
We may, however, be witnessing a change. We may be experiencing by those affected by standards a nascent sense of empowerment. The sense that if current arrangements for generating standards are perpetuated, then bad decisions will continue to made. That what is required, is a fundamental rethink about standards, the values that inform them, the structures and the processes that generate them. It is, as I say, a nascent sense of empowerment, not by any means fully formed.
The unpredicted and unpredictable prompt for this embryonic stirring was ASTM’s proposal to lower the HIC value for playground surfacing from HIC1000 to HIC700. As I understand it, the matter has gone to appeal within the ASTM decision-making system.
The ASTM proposal generated a good deal of American and international opposition, underpinned by well-founded arguments against ASTM’s proposal. However, the particular phenomenon that I want to point to is the entry into the discussion of voices and interests that have historically not made public their views on standards. This is a most welcome development which, to my mind, must be encouraged, extended and honed into an agent of change.
In this piece I want to share some thoughts about how we might approach play equipment and surfacing standards on the assumption that reform is necessary. I see this as no more than a contribution to what I hope will be a debate about where we go from here. My starting point is that play equipment and surfacing standards embed within their specifications errors that should not have been made, and must not be allowed to stand; and, more, that reform of standard-making structures and processes is required to prevent mistakes in the future. Note that I do not say that standards as such are a bad, unwanted thing. They have a part to play, provided they do not stray beyond their area of their competence.
What’s wrong with the standards as currently conceived?
In this section I have a bash at addressing fundamentals. So first, what underpins the faults in standards and standard-making? I think there are three key aspects:
1.Broadly speaking, standards as currently conceived cover two broad areas. One, the area where objective, technical knowledge can usefully be deployed:
“Examples of where the standards should rightly hold sway include requirements for the structural integrity of play equipment platforms; specifying how deep the foundations should be for individual pieces of equipment; determining the appropriate length and strength of an unsupported cross beam. These are areas where the objective facts of the matter have legitimate authority.”
And second, an area where standards are misplaced but nevertheless currently claim competence, such that they pronounce upon, the:
“more complex, nuanced, and value-saturated considerations that need to be taken into account when determining what, in any particular case, constitutes ‘an acceptable level of risk.'”
This latter area might include, for example, fall heights, surfacing, minimum space around equipment. These are the areas where, in my view, standards go beyond their area of competence. In effect, they trespass into areas where they should not stray.
It is not that the matters listed above should not be considered. It is that any consideration should be place specific, with decisions being made locally by the duty holder; that is, the person or authority responsible for the provision. The process for reaching such decisions is of course Risk-Benefit Assessment (RBA). RBA, as a matter of principle, is always place specific and related to the duty holder’s play policy.
The quotes in italics above are drawn from a joint paper, ‘Children’s Play Space and Safety Management: Rethinking the Role of Play Equipment Standards’, co-authored by Professor David Ball, Harry Harbottle, Tim Gill and myself. With all due modesty, I do suggest that the paper is a very useful aid to thinking about standards with the quotes above representing only a part of the argument it seeks to make. I need to add that, beyond the quotes, there is to be no presumption that my esteemed co-authors agree with what is said in this article.
2. That overall, standard-making is dominated by a focus on injury reduction coupled to an engineering-cum-medical conceptual framework. The dominance of this mode of thought marginalises or ignores other key considerations, for example, behavioural factors, risk compensation and the fact that decisions about what constitutes an acceptable level of risk in play is a value-based judgment, and not a generalised ‘given’ that can be addressed by engineering-based interventions. (That there are engineering-type considerations to be taken into account was dealt with in No. 1 above).
3. That standards’ decision-making processes are perceived as opaque and dominated by, or at least wrongly weighted towards, the interests and understandings of play equipment and surfacing manufacturers. If this is accepted as the case, it does not follow that all the error lies with the standard-making bodies. I have held for a long time that many in the ‘play world’, and here I include those focused on play in school and the proponents of natural play environments, have bemoaned the limitations that standards have on their practice, but have hitherto not been motivated to do anything practical about it. As I said in the introduction to this piece, my hope is that we are beginning to stir and perhaps to organise.
What is to be done?
In this section I’ll suggest some principles that, arguably, should inform any reform of standard making bodies.
1. That standards should no longer concern themselves with the area characterised above as “…complex, nuanced, and value-saturated”.
2. That individuals and bodies presenting ‘evidence’ about any proposed measure should play no part in determining what weight should be given to that or any other evidence.
3. Beyond the obviously particular interest detailed below in No. 4, no sectional interest – for example, equipment and surfacing manufactures; safety-focused organisations – should have a vote on a standard-making body, though their views are to be taken into account.
4. That play equipment and surfacing standards should be determined by civil society bodies, in particular those whose mandate (what constitutes a mandate is a matter of debate) enjoins them to extend and enhance play opportunities for children and teenagers.
The suggestions aim to place the decision-making in the hands of people who share a common value-base, and who are connected in a meaningful and direct way to the day to day actuality of play provision and the children and teenagers who actually play. Decision-making would move away from its current technical orientation, to those with direct, experience-based accumulated practical wisdom, sometimes characterised as ‘common sense’.
None of this is to eschew the need for ‘evidence’, nor is it designed to stifle the voice of industry or specified, but essentially non-play, bodies that have something to contribute to discussions about standards. It is simply that such bodies should not be judge and jury in their own court.
In floating these thoughts I have two models in mind. One, the courts. Two, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE).
There are many cases, not least negligence cases, where expert witnesses are called. It is not uncommon for expert witnesses to disagree with each other, in part or in whole. The significance here is that it is the non-expert judge, – that is, the judge not being an expert in anything other than law – who determines what weight to put on the expert evidence, and to reach a decision in the light of what he or she considers reasonable and in line with whatever legal principles or legislation may apply. It is the non-expert judge who frames and weighs the evidence according to criteria that lay outside the evidence as such.
The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE)
I suggest that the NICE model provides a way of approaching the relationship between decsion-makers and experts and interests.
“All NICE committees are independent and unbiased. Once a topic has been referred to us by the Department of Health, or NHS England, neither organisation has any more influence over the final guidance than any other stakeholder”
And Guidance is:
- “developed by independent advisory bodies, with input from the public, patients, carers, service users, health professionals and other professional groups
- developed using a transparent process and methods.”
“Invited experts – Each PHAC [Public Health Advisory Committee] may also invite additional experts to help in its consideration and interpretation of the evidence. Experts… are invited to present their evidence in the form of expert testimony at a PHAC meeting…. These experts are not members of the PHAC, and should not be involved in decision making, or take part in formulating recommendations. They will not have voting rights and will not count towards quorum. “
A thought against what I’ve just said
It occurred to me as I was writing this, and then only when I got to the NICE bit above (no pun intended), that the suggestions under “What is to be done?” may in fact be rather too extended and elaborate.
The thought is this: if Standard-making bodies do in fact, as in No 1 above, “… no longer concern themselves with the area characterised above as ‘…complex, nuanced, and value-saturated'”, there may in practice be no need for the wider play world to worry too much about standards. Standards would simply concern themselves with those matters susceptible to objective assessment, for example, the tensile strength of a platform, or the required depth of a foundation. All other matters would revert to ourselves.
Play equipment standards would then be on a par with, say, hairdryer or washing machine standards where the focus is on the equipment itself, the standard not presuming to tell us how or when to wash our hair or clothes.
I could tire both myself and you, the reader, by agonising about which of the two approaches above has the advantage. It may be that neither quite hit the mark. But I’ll leave this piece as it is in the hope that it is a contribution to a much needed debate about standards. It is certainly not the final word.
 In this article the term ‘standards’ refers specifically to ‘play equipment and surfacing standards’. It’s a bit of a mouthful to keep repeating the full phrase.
 Risk compensation: the tendency for, in this case, players to increase their risky behaviour because they believe ‘safety’ measures will protect them from harm.