I was invited by the International Journal of Play to write a review of Adrian Voce’s ‘Policy for Play: Responding to children’s forgotten right’.
This is the original manuscript of the review published by Taylor & Francis in International Journal of Play on 15 March 2016 available online http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/21594937.2016.1146492
Policy for Play is at once a eulogy for the demise of an unfulfilled, wished-for future, and a statement of faith in the need for, and possibility of, resurrection.
The unfulfilled future is the Play Strategy for England which did not live long beyond its birth; the hope of resurrection resides in the belief of many play advocates, and certainly the author’s, that children’s ‘forgotten right’ to play can be secured only by a national, all-embracing policy (or strategy, the terms are used interchangeably) for play.
Policy for Play is Adrian Voce’s well-written account of the rationale for national play polices, and a detailed history of attempts to secure such a policy for England. It is an insider’s account, one that chronicles the twists and the turns, the ups and the downs, of this singular pursuit.
And what a tale it is, and what a grasp of the detail Voce has. Highlighted are the reports, evaluations, think tank publications, ‘state of play’ reviews, along with the initiatives, funding programmes, organisational and sectoral developments that punctuate and propel the narrative forward. I say ‘forward’ because the way Voce tells it suggests an almost teleological perspective, a sense that England’s first national play strategy was the logically necessary result of everything that had happened up to the moment of its inception. But that is a perspective born of hindsight, where a panoramic view is possible – a reviewer’s conceit. For the actors at the time, there was no guarantee that the sought for prize could be won.
But win it they did, the intent being to formulate a Government ‘wide-ranging 12-year plan in three phases that aimed for “all children and young people [to] be able to find places near their homes, where they can play freely…”‘ In the event, with the election of a new Conservative-Liberal Democratic Government in 2010 the prize was snatched away before it could be fully enjoyed – a cruel denouement.
In fact, what was meant to be the first phase of the strategy did get off the ground – the £235m Playbuilder and Pathfinder capital programme. Voce notes that not everyone welcomed this first phase. He quotes Kevin Harris ‘[the Play Strategy] seems to be about confining children to manicured, designated places…the agenda could be seen as a predetermined reinforcement of segregation’. Others, as Voce points out, were sceptical ‘about the capacity, or willingness, of some local authorities to fully embrace the Play Strategy agenda.’ I need to declare my own interest here: wearing my PLAYLINK director’s hat, in a public response to the Government’s ‘consultation’ on the proposed strategy, I found key elements of the strategy to be ‘flawed and ill-judged’.
As flawed, perhaps even outrageous (though few wanted to say out loud), was Government issuing the ‘consultation’ document, ‘Fair Play: A consultation on the play strategy’ (2008) after it had made all the key decisions about Pathfinder and Playbuilder. Policy for Play makes the point that the capital building programme was ‘already decided’ prior to consultation, though with no hint of censure. There is a wider issue here: what is the best – or proper – relationship between Government and play’s civil society institutions? Policy for Play does not examine this.
Policy for Play is not simply or exclusively a chronicle of events, it also highlights what might be called the eternal conundrums attending any attempt to shoehorn play into the language of government and the requirements of the national and local state.
‘Play practitioners and advocates tend to resist the imposition of extraneous agendas onto the play environment. …But the policy world of quantifiable outcomes, measurable impacts, cost-benefit ratios and the like can be a problem….Play does not produce results; at least not predictable ones of the kind that can easily be measured, evaluated and reported on (p21)’
Voce is right of course, the policy world fetishes evidence of a particular kind and, currently, is aspect blind to forms of justification not susceptible to measurement. As to the ‘evidence’ for play and play provision, he points to Lester and Russell’s ‘Play for Change’ (2008) that (in his words) ‘acknowledge[s] the dearth of evidence of what constitutes good play provision itself…’. In similar vein, drawing on Tim Gill’s ‘The Play Return: A review of the wider impact of play initiatives’, (2014) it found only ‘modest evidence’ of benefits from most play settings. Voce comments, correctly in my view, that The Play Return (and by implication other exercises of similar nature) ‘illustrates the flaw in following a strictly evidenced-based approach.’ It’s a slight puzzle, then, when at page 149 he says ‘No child has ever played to improve their future life chances, but there is plenty of evidence to suggest that, in playing, they do just that [my emphasis].’
What one might call this ‘doubleness’ of view on evidence, is suggestive of play advocates’ general unease and ambivalence on the matter, finding themselves pulling both ends in the evidential tug-of-war game: ‘yes, it’s there, somewhere, somehow’: ‘no it’s not, not in the way you want it’.
There is much that is good and useful in this book, more than the space allowed for this review can cover, but there are also caveats to be entered. There are questions that deserve – need – closer attention, but Policy for Play does not ask them. Perhaps that’s fair enough, it’s essentially a book on a mission not a forum for the expression of doubt. But it’s worth highlighting at least some of the areas that require attention.
A significant part of the story is framed in the terms of conventional diplomatic or institutional history. The dramatis personae are the Ministers – now in, now out – civil servants, politicians, Lottery chiefs, play advocates. Its focus and perspective is on the interactions between two establishments: the party political, civil servant and Lottery establishment, and the play establishment. The outside world comprising parents and communities is acknowledged, but has no active role. With good reason, for there is no extensive, meaningful ‘bottom up’ pressure to secure the ‘forgotten right’.
In the absence of consistent popular demand – by parents and citizens generally – pressing for the right to play, who is to hold governments’ – any government – feet to the fire? The strategy itself can’t do it, because the strategy cannot cause itself, it requires external force both to generate and maintain it. If the only external – quasi-external? – force is the play establishment, itself in need of public funding, how is it to contend with a change of government that has no interest in play, or to a change in government priorities, say, midway through a twelve year strategy? No speculation is required, as Policy for Play attests.
This is not to argue that it is possible, still less easy, to generate ‘popular’ pressure for play, one rooted in the lives and concerns of ‘ordinary people’. But a harsh judgment could be made that the Play Strategy was structurally unsound precisely because its anchor points were within play’s institutional clusters – Children’s Play Council, Play England, Children Play Policy Forum and so forth – who accepted the terms of the game that needed to be played, and were adept in it. Policy for Play makes the claim that the commitment to play is ‘shared by millions of parents and others…’. Well, maybe, but if so that commitment has yet to find political expression. We may have our Generals, but where are the troops?
More widely, Policy for Play piles up the arguments for having a national play policy/strategy, as though a contrary case could not exist. In the abstract, the arguments are well made, but life is not lived in the abstract and many factors can – and often do – supervene to make the theoretically desirable the opposite. Once there is a Government strategy, the danger is that it will be its mode of framing the issue, its forms of assessment, that will dominate. There is no guarantee that a national play strategy will reliably be pursued in terms ‘play advocates’ would approve, not least because play is such a slippery concept. The Fair Play ‘consultation’ should be seen as the issue of a cautionary note. Again, this is not an argument against a national play strategy, but suggests more thought required.
In truth the arguments in favour of a specifically England national play strategy, at this time, are largely abstract and theoretical. Policy for Play’s own case, in part, derives from a counter-factual; that is, it imagines or speculates what would – might? – happen had the twelve year programme not been scrapped so peremptorily: ‘The success of the Playbuilder programme… would have almost guaranteed further investment had it not been for the financial crash…It is reasonable to project that [had the strategy been maintained] a truly child friendly approach to spacial development [would result] (emphasis added).’ Perhaps.
Policy for Play is a good read, and a starting point to asking questions.