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I am Michael Follett – Founder-Director of OPAL. OPAL are very happy to announce that we will be working in partnership with Ben and Mike from Ludicology to bring the OPAL Primary Programme to schools across the North West region. So what is OPAL? Why is it needed, and what will Ludicology be offering?
Did you know primary children spend 1.4 years or 20% of their school lives at play?
When adults take the time to ask children what is important to them, play always features very highly. This is fortunate as play supports almost every aspect of children’s development, well-being and enjoyment of life. Sport England, in their 2019 Active Lives Children and Young People study, found that the biggest motivator of physical activity in children aged between 5 and 11 is ‘Play’! Perhaps unsurprisingly playing was found by Sport England to be even more popular within this age group than team sports, swimming or any other activity.
Most schools are very good at planning for learning, but when it comes to planning for play, they have no policy, strategy, leadership or plan to structure their improvement and so struggle to create effective and lasting improvements.
In 2005 I was appointed by the beacon quality South Gloucestershire School Improvement Service as the UK’s only school improvement officer for play. Over six years, I developed the OPAL Primary Programme. It is a mentor-supported school improvement programme which addresses all of the area’s schools must plan for if they want to improve the quality of play sustainably.
Schools are supported by an expert mentor over a series of meetings spanning 18 months to change their entire culture around play. This includes developing policy, strategy, action planning, resources, risk-benefit documentation, staff training, communication and self-evaluation. The programme has been independently researched and shown to be highly effective, has won numerous awards, and been cited by OFSTED and the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Childhood as good practice.
In 2011 Outdoor Play and Learning (OPAL) CIC became an independent national not-for-profit organisation. By 2020, over a quarter of a million primary school children, in hundreds of UK schools have benefited from fantastic fun, playtimes every single day. OPAL is steadily growing to enable even more children to get the quality of play experience they need and want while at school.
When I first started OPAL, I was working with schools in South Gloucestershire. They were fairly similar in nature, and I wondered if the programme would work in other kinds of schools. Since 2011 when we went independent, we have worked with every kind of school, from huge London primaries with over 700 children to a Somerset school with 34 pupils. We have transformed play in incredibly cramped schools in the heart of London and suburban schools with acres of land. It doesn’t matter if the school is a pupil referral unit, a special school, an infant, junior or even a French, Canadian or Polish school, what we have learnt is that play is so integral to the lives of children, and the fundamentals of providing for play are so universal, that any and every school can benefit.
As pupils slowly return to schools following months of isolation, the need for a strategic approach to the quality of play in schools will be more critical than ever. No school would employ a teacher who didn’t have the necessary qualifications, training and skills to do an excellent job for every pupil. No parent would want their child to attend such a school, so why is it accepted in 20,000+ primary schools that the people who have responsibility for supervising playtimes are allowed to do so with no proper knowledge or training? The cost to the nation of school’s playtime supervision is an estimated £750 million every year, and based on my observations of hundreds of schools, most provision is not fit for purpose.
The good news is, times are changing, and the attitude of the Government and national policy organisations show they recognise the need for schools to take a much more proactive and strategic approach to the provision of daily quality play opportunities for all children.
The PE and Sports Premium is government funding given to every school, which must be used to create sustainable improvements in children’s activity. In the past schools tended to assume this was meant to be spent on sports and PE only. The guidance from Nov 1st 2019 now puts two of the top priorities as:
- To be directed at the least active children, not the most active
- To be used to create the conditions for active play in schools.
Sport England is the organisation given responsibility by the government to get more people more active. Since 2019 they have included active play as a significant contributor to children’s healthy active lifestyles.
In May 2020 OPAL was awarded £245,600 of growth funding by Sport England and the National Lottery to enable the organisation to recruit and train more Mentors located in every English region. So, all schools who want to improve their playtimes to meet the government indicators will have dedicated support available throughout their 12 to 18 month training programme. The funding will also enable the provision of on-line training, which will be freely accessible to all school’s playtime support staff.
Also, there will be new research published, networking and conference events, lots of great ideas for the play environment for staff, and there will be help available for parents and carers who want to boost play outside of school.
OPAL is taking on new mentors so that school’s in all parts of the country can have access to the OPAL Primary Programme. When looking for new mentors, we look for people with many years of experience in the playwork sector, who can work strategically with organisations at a senior leadership level and can communicate with passion the importance and transformative impact of great play on children’s lives.
I am delighted that Ben and Mike from Ludicology are working in partnership with us to provide OPAL’s services to schools in Cheshire, Shropshire, Liverpool and the Wirral, Manchester, and more broadly across Lancashire and Cumbria. Ben and Mike are currently undergoing their induction to OPAL and progressing through the OPAL mentors training. I am confident that their combination of expert knowledge, engaging style and professional approach will ideally complement the growing OPAL team.
If you would like to find out more about the OPAL Primary Programme, you can contact Ben and Mike directly through the contact page on the Ludicology website, or you can head over to the main OPAL website, where there are videos, testimonials, a downloadable booklet and a contact page for the main office.
Michael Follett BA Hons PGCE