Fair Play For Children
Promoting the Child's Right to Play since 1973 in the UK and Worldwide according to the Convention on the Rights of the Child
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Community Use Of Schools For Children's Organised Activities

In 1975, Fair Play for Children published 'Why Lock Up Our Schools? ', a booklet studying the situation of use of school premises by voluntary play organisations. At the time, Fair Play stated that 'parents in volunteers in some parts of the country already enjoy excellent local facilities for community use of schools ' but went on to reveal that they faced 'in most parts of the country ... a much more difficult task '. In the 1990 's, what progress has been made?

The truth is that, despite Government encouragement, through Education Circulars, Fair Play and other organisations still receive far too many reports from locally-based playschemes etc that they are finding great difficulty in getting, or retaining, use of school premises and facilities.

This Fact Sheet aims to give guidance to groups wishing to use educational premises for play purposes. It is not exhaustive - we do urge anyone who feels they need further advice to contact us at the address at the end of this Fact Sheet.

POLICY ON COMMUNITY USE OF SCHOOLS

It has long been the avowed policy of successive Governments that there should be greater use of school premises, and out-of-school facilities for children have been targeted as of special importance in this regard. After all, it would seem to make sense that an establishment created for children 's educational needs should also be able to cater, where possible, for their leisure time. (One important, and first consideration, however, in deciding whether to ask for use of school premises, might be 'Will the children want to come back into premises they have had to attend all day for much of the year? ' There again, the local situation may be that there is no choice .... the school is the only suitable venue. )

Local authorities are encouraged to have a stated and easily accessible policy on community use of schools. In non-Metropolitan Counties, this will be the County Education Authority, whilst in the Metropolitan and London Borough areas it is the Metropolitan Borough or District, or London Borough Education Authority. Writing to the Director of Education for a statement of this policy should result in a clear outline of their attitude.

LOCAL MANAGEMENT OF SCHOOLS

Under the Education Reform Act 1986, a new system of devolved management of the finances and administration of schools at local level is now being implemented. This alters considerably the relationship between Education Authority and School, with the latter being far more autonomous. It will have a major impact on community use of school premises and whilst the Education Authority will still have a lot of overall influence, this development simply underlines the first, obvious and major truth about obtaining use for some form of play activity:

It is first necessary to establish a good relationship with the Head Teacher or (with many secondary schools/community colleges) the Community Tutor or similar.

LMS also creates the obligation on schools to charge realistic prices for use of their facilities, and the worry is that this may price many play projects out of that market despite the Government 's other p;policy to encourage them to use schools. It will be worth asking the school if its Governors/management has or would consider a policy of favourable treatment of such schemes especially where many of the children will come from that school.

The Education Minister has gone on record as wishing to encourage use of school premises for after-school play-care schemes, in order to extend the number of children of working mothers and single parents who can benefit from such schemes. But also it was made clear that the schools were expected to charge fully for the use of premises. A survey by a national voluntary child-care organisation in 1990 showed that only a handful of schools had responded to this call by actually allowing the establishment of such schemes in their premises.

At the time of writing of this Fact Sheet, therefore, it is too soon to see what effect LMS is having, but the signs are not encouraging.

WHAT KIND OF PLAY ACTIVITIES ALREADY USE SCHOOL FACILITIES?

If you can think of one, it 's probably happening in a school somewhere. So there is the question of precedent, especially local experience (good and bad). For many years, holiday play schemes have been organised in many schools around the country. After-school clubs, latch-key projects, junior clubs etc for the school-age child, whilst pre-school playgroups and mother & toddler groups have been allowed to use school premises in school hours, often in an annexe building or portacabin.

At a time when play-care projects seem high on the public agenda, many Education Authorities and schools are looking at schemes in association with local employers. Here Fair Play must sound a strong warning: whilst it is a fact that Britain lacks in play and day-care facilities, we must all oppose the creation of a two-tier play provision where those in work and paid well can afford to pay for places whilst others cannot. It would be even more unacceptable if, because of LMS pressures to create school income, Governors allowed their premises, which are mainly paid for through taxes and community charge, to become the preserve of schemes for the better-off family 's child.

What Fair Play seeks is wide-spread community provision, accessible to all children. Obviously, there may be specialisms, such as special needs schemes or facilities aimed at ethnic groups, but these cater for need not privilege.

There is one kind of provision/activity often overlooked but always the most frequent - informal use of school grounds by children. There are problems associated with this but often school grounds are the only safe place near to home to play, and it may be that an important aspect of improving the child 's play environment may be to tackle this issue if children are subjected to lock-out '. And, of course, many schools can boast excellent facilities such as swimming pools, gyms, sports fields, and equipment such as transport, sports equipment, video cameras, print machines, computers et al.

WHO DO WE ASK?

The first person to contact may vary. It should always be someone directly associated with the school and it will be necessary in due course to make a formal application according to the school 's own systems. But you may know a teacher, the head-teacher, a Governor, an officer of the PTA or someone else closely connected to the school. They can make informal soundings, but this can lead to delays unless you follow the matter through with the contact. If you lack any such contact, telephone the head-teacher: always be prepared to call back if they 're teaching or otherwise engaged. When you first speak to the head-teacher, at whatever stage this may be, have the basic outline of what you want to do in your head or in note form. After the preliminaries of who you are, what group you represent or are forming, explain you would like to discuss the idea of such-and-such a facility, and arrange a meeting. At this stage spell out as clearly as you can the details of what you want. Say you want a summer playscheme, two weeks, mornings only, between such-and-such dates. Also the likely number of children, age range, types of activity envisaged, and of course, helpers/supervision. The school will want details of insurance, first aid and similar issues. They may want to know about the qualification and experience of leaders and assistants. In due course, this may all need to go in writing, if only as a record of matters agreed verbally - this is advisable to avoid conflict of interpretation later on. For example, it would be awkward in the middle of the scheme if the school caretaker would not allow use of a facility expressly wanted because he was not aware of the arrangement. A letter, confirmed by the school, will smooth the way.

PLANNING WITH THE SCHOOL.

A tour of the school facilities will be needed at the earliest possible stage. It will become clear whether the premises are in fact suitable. The head-teacher or teacher will be able to show the rooms available, where exits are, fire arrangements and extinguishers, toilets, cloakrooms and what will be the exact areas allowed for use. If the premises seem suitable, then the actual planning can start. This will be many weeks, months even beforehand. It will be advisable to invite the school to send a representative, if only for liaison purposes. (Quite often this will lead to a teacher taking a more direct interest in the scheme and this can lead to many advantages, not least a less 'precious ' attitude towards use of equipment. After all, it is then under their supervision. ) The planning stage should cover dates, supervision, pricing, activities, numbers expected, hours of scheme, number and recruitment of paid and voluntary helpers, refreshment breaks, visits, cleaning up after sessions, first aid - the school representative can either explain school restrictions, or where there is uncertainty, refer to the head or Governors. Minutes of planning meetings should be taken, listing decisions clearly, for future reference. Any restrictions by the school ought also to be given in writing. Any special facilities such as winter heating, use of school pool (and life-saving), use of school transport should now be discussed also. A positive planning experience is not only good for the actual play scheme envisaged but as a model for all other extensive community use of the school.

SOME PROBLEMS THAT CAN GET IN THE WAY.

The most-frequently quoted 'bogey ' is the reluctance of the school caretaker to have much to do with any playscheme. He/she may be one of the first people to win over. It 's not a question of a dislike of children (usually). We have to remember this is that person 's working environment in which they may take a lot of pride. There are many pressures, not least financial, which may mean extensive cleaning has to await the long summer. Previous experiences of community use may play a part in a caretaker 's attitudes, for good or ill. But patient negotiation and re-assurance can solve much of this. Most trades unions to which caretakers belong (usually NUPE) have a definite policy in favour of such use of schools and urge their members to co operate. Contacting the union official (district/local area) may well help. Caretakers also like time off, so you may need to arrange voluntary/paid caretaking help acceptable to his/her standards, or pay him/her for their overtime (unless the school wants to contribute this as its part in providing a good scheme). Once commenced, a well-run scheme which leaves no mess and cleans up will convince even the most doubting caretaker that the scheme is worthwhile.

Open-plan and other types of building arrangement of schools may be unsuitable for use - it is often impossible to shut off certain areas for use and to exclude children from the rest of the building. Or it may not be possible to section off rooms for scheme use and provide access to water and toilets. Some schools have elaborate alarm systems which require Fort Knox procedures each time the building is opened up.

Late application/ poor planning arrangements hardly inspire confidence. Nor does constant but trivial demand on school time.

Damage to school premises/property will hardly endear, and often head-teachers and teachers will be especially watchful about voluntary groups using their premises. If there is a persistent local vandalism problem, this will create doubt, but it is correct to say that schemes for children often have a major role in prevention. Children are known to resent exclusion from use of school facilities (especially informal) and this is when trouble begins. A well-run scheme can often improve the situation out of all recognition.

Neighbours may object. 'We have it all year ' is one response. It is advisable to inform the direct neighbours of the school, and to try to re-assure them. It may be that activities, especially outdoor, can be sited away from their homes. Supervision to prevent damage to plants, footballs in the greenhouse, tykes climbing through holes in fences (existing or made), foul language in earshot of sensitive ears etc is important.

Traffic outside the school. Much emphasis is put on road safety instruction when children go to and from school. Yet the child is as much at risk to and from the same school used for play scheme purposes. You may be able to pay the Lollipop lady/gent or recruit/delegate a helper or helpers to look after this. Liaise with the Police and the County Road Safety Officer. Stranger Danger is heightened where it is known that children are to and from a facility. Helpers can be briefed to keep an eye on such matters (cars persistently noted etc).

Head-Teacher/Teacher Unhappy about Approach. Sometimes teaching staff have a background/training (alas) where they do not understand that play-work is not like relaxed teaching. They may hover and tut during sessions and in the planning stage want to be assured to an impossible degree about exactly what will happen. Good play-workers know this is not possible. If this tendency is noticeable at planning stage, it may be necessary to be direct about the matter, in a nice way! Children do not have to attend the scheme and what you are doing is not school. Re-assurance about the essential educational value of play may help. Understanding anxiety about safety of children, building and equipment is necessary also. One approach, humorously, may be to say 'Perhaps it will be better if you don 't actually look! ' What the eye doesn 't behold, the heart won 't grieve - so long as everything is tidy at the end of the day and fully restored by scheme end.

The school may want to fix conditions such as age limits or who can come to the scheme. Your response will be dependent on local circumstances but there are basic principles concerning the essential neighbourhood aspect of play, and equal opportunities for all children, which will partially determine your response.

DURING THE SCHEME . . . .

make sure you comply with school hiring conditions, general and special. As the school may have on-site inspection, make sure you always have your quota of helpers on duty. A rota may be in operation - make sure it 's followed and that there is someone to step into place in an emergency. Always have a minimum number of helpers on duty - Fair Play suggests three: in a crisis, one to go to hospital with a child, another to supervise the other (upset) children, and one to contact various people such as parents, scheme management and so forth. Make sure any potentially dangerous items out of reach and locked away. Stop inappropriate/ damaging/ dangerous behaviour. It does not aid confidence to have a child on the roof! Clean up after every session, and have a thorough clean-up at the end of the scheme. Make sure the toilets are not used for unacceptable activities -smoking, toilet rolls down the loos, water everywhere. This is certain to enrage caretakers!

WHAT IF WE 'RE REFUSED?

First, find out why, in writing if possible - details. Try to re-assure on any points. But you may find this is to no avail. If the refusal seems unreasonable, you may want to try somewhere else, if there is anywhere. If no other premises are available, and the reasons seem flimsy, write to the Chairman of the Governors of the School, with a copy to the Director of Education. If there is nowhere else and your needs are urgent, point this out and involve your MP. If discreet pressure and persuasion don 't work, then you may have either to decide to confront the school or abandon your plans. At this stage, PLEASE contact Fair Play. We will try to help by contacting school and Authority. Each situation will determine its own response. A row or strong action may be more appropriate if you have a succession of schools turn you down, yet they admit all sorts of other activities, or at least one could be expected to help. Sometimes head-teachers have their own meetings network and a friendly one might raise the general issue. Perhaps the best 'insurance ' is to have a Parent Governor as a keen scheme helper! Councillors may also be useful allies. In the end, some situations are potentially just asking for trouble from day one - human nature comes into this.

On the whole, however, persistence pays off, and today the scene is changing in that people want more play facilities.

CHILDREN ACT 1989

Will your scheme need to register under the regulations of the 1989 Act? Schedule 9 of the Act exempts children looked after by schools (maintained, assisted or managed by local authority, independent, grant-maintained, self-governing) and play centres established under Section 53 of 1944 Education Act or section 6 of Education (Scotland) Act 1980. But this will not cover schemes run by independently-managed bodies such as voluntary playscheme committees which will have to register where children under 8 years of age are involved. The Act also exempts situations where less than 6 days a year day-care is provided so long as the persons providing the facility inform social services that it will be provided. Therefore, at the planning stage, the appropriate social services officer should be involved because this will affect numbers, rooms, equipment and much else. [Note: under current Government ideas for deregulation, it is possible that the exemption of less than six days will be increased to cover supervised activities run less than 60 days a year. Intending organisers of activities involving children aged under 8 years should check with their local Social Services Child Care registration officer.]

THE NATIONAL CHILD CARE STRATEGY

The General Election in 1997 heralded a major shift in Government thinking about child care provision, including afterschool clubs, playschemes etc. Within five years, the Government has a target of creating up to 30,000 new out-of-school facilities, and the majority of these will be based in or associated with schools. Indeed, one of the criteria for funding from the New Opportunities Programme will be that a school must be part of the partnership applying. This must make a major impact on the availability of school premises. What remains to be seen, however, is the extent to which such activities are mainly extensions of the child's working day at school (educational overtime) as opposed to freely-chosen, child-directed play activities.