It was October and I was standing on the roof of a high rise building in the middle of Shanghai. Flight after flight of stairs interspersed with several elevator journeys had brought me to the summit, and the rooftop on which I now stood served as a primary school playground for hundreds of pupils. As I made my way to the edge of the building I was amazed to find that the only barrier between me and the pavement – 16 stories down – was a small wall, waist height at most. I peered over the edge and can still recall that instant feeling of danger and dizziness washing over my entire body. I stepped back and turned to the Chinese headteacher whose school I was visiting.
“Nobody has ever fallen off” he cheerfully explained.
Perhaps even more remarkable was the fact that all of the children were all unsupervised before my host and I arrived. Even in the relative safety of a large outdoor space at ground level of a neighbouring school, the lack of playtime supervision was a recurring feature of the Chinese school system.
“The children know what to do if they require any assistance.” It was said to me as though my questions about health and safety and first aid had been asked by someone being deliberately daft.
“The children can manage their own independence in this space” was their matter of fact – it’s common sense, surely – reply.
Now, let me be clear: I’m not advocating quite such a cavalier approach to playtimes in my schools. If nothing else, the huge safety nets which swung out from lower stories at a number of the schools I visited reminded me that Shanghai didn’t really want children hurtling to their demise, either deliberately or accidentally. But nonetheless, my time on the rooftop playground is something that I often think about.
As autumn dies we skip forward to May – the cusp of summer – and a lovely early evening of sunshine in Shropshire. I’m stood outside my little cottage accommodation looking over a huge playing field in the grounds of a residential centre where 300 children from all over Britain are mixing and mingling and having fun together. These children are all enjoying an educational ‘residential’ – most are like the pupils I’ve brought: Year 6’s who have looked forward to this special treat for many years – mine regard it as the highlight of their time in my schools. But there is a smattering of younger pupils and some schools, like mine, are visiting from beyond the UK.
It’s ‘downtime’ – that moment between finishing dinner and the planned evening activity. Some children are kicking a football about. Some sit and chat whilst others run around playing chase and tag and hide & seek. Others are mooching about and a fair few are heading back to their dorms to read or rest or prepare for their next adventure. As for the teachers accompanying these children on their residentials, they too are relaxed and most are not to be seen. They’ve gone back to their rooms to have a cup of tea, phone home, or simply indulge in a few moments of peace and quiet. Some, like me, are just stood outside taking it all in. A football lands at my feet and I kick it back up to where a makeshift pitch hosts the match.
It was in this moment that I realised it was just like being in Shanghai – hundreds of children happily managing their own independence. If a child fell or tripped or banged into someone else, 99% of the time they dusted themselves down and got on with it. ‘Fights’ or arguments were virtually none existent – the culture of mixing together and getting on with each other hung magnificently in the invisible ethos that surrounded the whole place. And when something did go wrong the children knew what to do: they knew where to go to get help, and they knew how to respond appropriately. And all of this happened without a duty rota of two teachers out on ‘supervision.’
I am now convinced that schools not only have a duty to teach children to manage their own independence but that the best way to do it is to rip up all of the old-skool thinking that causes us to merely pay lip service to it rather than truly deliver it. And this isn’t easy because so much of it is entrenched in good intentions and ‘health and safety.’
At my school we have made progress. But my ultimate goal remains: unsupervised playtimes.
I’ve been upfront about it, but there is still the hearts and minds battle to be won with my staff. We have now got it down to just one member of staff on duty, but I want to go further. Staff outside do not prevent an accident. If an accident is going to happen, it is going to happen. Staff outside can inhibit risk – “get down off there…. stop running by the trees… go and play with that ball over there…” before the children have chance to experience that risk and assess the situation dynamically for themselves. My view is that we can go much further with teaching our pupils how to look after each other, how to manage their own independence and how to risk-assess for themselves.
We have embarked on a programme of teaching risk assessment throughout the school, starting in EYFS. It’s a risk assessment that doesn’t rely on paper and pencil: it’s about thinking, looking, discussing and deciding. By the time children are in Year 6 they are contributing to the risk assessment documents for offsite trips – sometimes taking responsibility for compiling them in their entirety. We’ve shown the children how to do things safely: this is how to use the climbing frame, this is how to climb a tree, this is how to break your fall... Far from encouraging unnecessary risk we are acknowledging that children like to – and need to – experience it. So if they’re going to do it, let’s enable it rather than make it covert and mischievous – the latter being a perfect ingredient for increasing the likelihood of an accident.
Alongside this is a first aid programme for our pupils delivered by St John Ambulance; on-site Forest School experience where firelighting and safe knife use is taught; woodwork club delivered by a local joinery firm allowing the children to use ‘real’ equipment such as nail guns and industry standard saws; and a nurturing of our ‘family’ ethos where we all genuinely look out for each other. This leads to a culture of sensible risk taking and a deep sense of understanding about what risk is: which pupils just don’t get if we continually ‘supervise’ the hell out of them.
The children are shown where to go to get help and what to do in an emergency. And before anyone suggests that this is about being slack and giving the teachers a bit of a skive, think again. Firstly, it’s almost counter-intuitive to do this. Teachers have been finding it difficult to ‘step back.’ And secondly, remember that ethos I described in Shropshire? If we get this right, I’m convinced the approach will mean we will find teachers naturally popping in and out at playtimes in a way that a rigid duty timetable doesn’t promote. I intend to end ‘fixed’ playtimes too to help engender this fluidity even more.
So it’s really not about teachers having more time for more biscuits in the staff room. It’s a massive amount of work to set this up, to risk assess it fully and to enable it to help in a way that is safe and appropriate. Much more work actually than keeping the status quo of supervised breaks. But if the children managing their own independence and managing their own risk does come at the cost of an extra biscuit or two, so be it. We really do owe it to the children to skill them up in this way, and at my schools we really are going to risk it for a biscuit.