The Children’s Play Council is leading the attempt to devise national performance indicators for assessing local authority performance on play. This is a good thing.
Care must be taken, however, to ensure that doubts about the utility of national PIs are properly explored. Our shared desire that play should be a government priority must not at the same time prompt a rush to premature judgment about PIs capacity to yield in practice beneficial impact.
As we should know, benefits come with costs, and though there are risks in not having play PIs, there are risks associated with having them too. The recent Lyon interim report on the future role of local government offers a salutary caution:
‘the current system of delivering to national standards, driven by central government in a variety of ways including targets, inspection… appears to have some drawbacks in terms of confusion and complexity. This might hinder effective service delivery and choice at the local level, as well as producing inefficiencies. Such pressures may also divert local government from its strategic place-shaping role.’
The play sector is now the recipient of welcome but unaccustomed largesse, prompting a flurry of activity as new organisational structures are created with consequential movement of key personnel. We are in flux, and perhaps a little nervous to be taken seriously. In pursuit of our aim of making play a government priority, we must beware of becoming breathless enthusiasts of received opinion, merely reciting the questionable orthodoxies of this or that management theory. Doubt here does not impede progress, but is its precursor.
We have proposed a set of negative criteria against which play PIs might be tested. We suggest that ‘places for play’ performance indicators should not:
- focus only on designated playgrounds
- assume that all areas need a designated playground
- assess places for play in isolation from their surrounding areas
- assess places for play in isolation to how they are used in practice
- automatically equate playground or play opportunity with play equipment
- allow user satisfaction to be the sole test of quality
- succumb to the notion that proxy indicators tell us anything useful without first ferociously testing any proposed proxies
- assume that age groups should as a matter of course be kept segregated
- assume that fence and safety surfacing are always required
- do harm.
Above all, local initiative must not be stifled.