Council Playground Closures Put Spotlight on Schools

council playgrounds

There’s a seismic shift going on in the world of playgrounds. It’s not too long ago that school playgrounds were little more than large expanses of empty tarmac and that the public park was the place to find all the exciting equipment. Today, that situation is very much the reverse. While many schools have made considerable improvements to their playgrounds, cash strapped councils are having to close theirs down.

According to a recent article in the Guardian, a funding crisis in the play sector means many public playgrounds are in such a dilapidated state that councils are no longer in a position to reopen them. After years of austerity and the capping of council tax, councils have been forced to focus their spending on statutory responsibilities. As a result, play provision has disappeared off the list of priorities. Not only are improvements becoming fewer; many authorities are struggling just to pay for the necessary maintenance of existing playground equipment, without which it is unwise and potentially unsafe to keep them open.

The Association of Play Industries has found that over 340 playgrounds have been closed across England over the last few years and those still in use have seen their budgets cut by £13 million, year on year. In many cases, it is groups of parents who are seeking to make improvements, often having to resort to crowdfunding to pay for any repairs.

This is not, however, the only problem for parents and children looking for play areas. While the government has begun the process of mass home building across the country to deal with the housing shortage, families moving into these areas are finding few, if any, local playgrounds being developed at the same time. Despite a playground being an amenity that could improve the value for all the homes in these areas, developers stand to make more money using those spaces to build more houses. Many of those which have been built remain largely unused because the budgets were so small they hold no attraction for the children.

For those living in social housing, it’s a lottery as to whether there’s a good local playground. Some housing associations are willing to invest properly in providing high-quality playgrounds while others will merely contribute towards their upkeep and assist local groups with fundraising activities.

What does this mean for schools?

Regardless of the numerous learning benefits that a school playground provides children with, the benefits of play for their physical health and mental wellbeing are considerable. It is recommended that children take part in an hour of physical activity every day. They can get much of this from taking part in playground games or from playing on equipment like climbing frames. Doing so helps keep them aerobically fit, strengthens their core muscles, improves physical skills like balance and coordination and improves general health and fitness. It also helps combat obesity and its associated illnesses that are increasingly common among children of all ages and which can have life-long consequences.

Physical activity has also been shown to have a beneficial effect on mental wellbeing, as does any form of social play that children participate in. Indeed, following the lockdown, there are many concerns about how the lack of socialising has affected children’s mental health and behaviour. When children first went back to school in September, schools reported more children struggling to play together and saw an increase in altercations. Ofsted, meanwhile, noted a concerning decrease in physical fitness.

As a result, child development experts are calling for parents and schools to give children and teenagers more time for active, outdoor play and socialising – something which contradicts Gavin Williamson's desire to extend school hours and provide summer schools to help children catch up with classwork.

However, with public playgrounds being closed down and many of those remaining needing maintenance before they can open once again, the spotlight falls very much on schools. Compared to a generation ago, today, the best equipped and safest playgrounds that children have access to are often found in the schoolyard, not at the local park or residential estate.

Conclusion

In the short term, when it comes to helping children deal with the aftermath of the pandemic, school playgrounds will have an important role to play in providing the physical and social activities long-isolated pupils so desperately need. In the long-term, however, if the number of public playgrounds continues to decline, the schoolyard may be, for many children, the only place left to enjoy the treasures of a well-equipped playground.

For more details about our playground equipment, visit our Products page.

 

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5 Questions to Ask Before Upgrading a School Playground

Though upgrading a school playground brings many advantages, it is often a major project and presents both opportunities and challenges. Before you can put designs on the table, there are some important questions to be asked. Here, we look at the key questions you need to consider.

1. Where will we find the funding?

Depending on the size of the playground and the equipment you want to install, a playground upgrade can come with a hefty price tag. While there may be funding available from within the school budget, many schools need to source additional funds from grants and raise money through fundraising activities. This may mean asking the PTA to run events, getting the children and staff involved in sponsored activities and seeing if any philanthropically minded members of the school or local community (including local businesses) are willing to make donations.

Careful design of the playground can help keep costs to a minimum and at ESP Play we point you in the right direction of potential grants and give ideas and advice on fundraising.

2. Where to create the upgrade?

Getting the most benefit from a school playground doesn’t always mean that the upgrade has to be in exactly the same space as your existing outdoor area. There’s always the potential to extend the area, join formerly separate areas together, shift the space over a little or even move it to the other side of the building. Why does the school have a south-facing car park and a north-facing playground when the opposite would be the obvious choice? Why is the one area of natural beauty on the school site nowhere near where the children play? Asking questions like these can help you think outside the box and realise the true potential of the space you have available.

Of course, there are many other things to consider, such as access, safety, planning permission, the suitability of the ground, the type of landscaping you want and so forth.

3. Who is going to use the playground?

While the obvious answer to this is the pupils, schools need to think very carefully about the children’s needs when planning an upgrade. One key factor will be inclusion. A playground needs not just to be accessible to all, but to provide opportunities for all. There’s no point putting a wheelchair access pathway to the playground if a wheelchair user is left unable to play with their friends or make use of any equipment. This principle applies to children with all needs.

At the same time, schools need to look at how children of different ages and interests play. The design you create should provide them with the activities they want to do during their free time. For some, this will be just to have somewhere quiet to chill out and chat to their mates, for others it will be exciting equipment to climb on or sports markings to have a game of football or netball. Younger children may prefer to take part in messy play or have some whiteboards to draw on, etc.

Getting this right means getting to know your pupils and asking them what they want.

4. What does the school want the playground for?

Today’s school playgrounds are multi-functional and help the school in many different ways. From a multi-functional point of view, they are used for breaktime play, outdoor classrooms, PE, outdoor eating areas, interschool sports matches, school fetes and various other purposes. Questioning what you want the playground to be used for can help you create a design that brings this extra functionality. Consider how creating a picnic area, for example, could ease the pressure of lunchtimes in those schools whose canteens lack seating capacity. Or how an outdoor classroom could help enrich the curriculum while freeing up space within the school for other purposes. For secondary schools in particular, equipping the playground with a MUGA could make it far easier for PE departments who are often deprived of their halls during the exam season.

The type of equipment installed in a playground can also help schools in other ways. Apparatus that inspires children to be physically active, such as climbing frames and Trim Trails, can improve physical health and mental wellbeing, helping to reduce obesity and enabling children to cope better with depression or anxiety. Physical activity can also boost mental alertness in lessons and reduce disruptive behaviour, while social play helps improve relationships within the school and nature areas help improve mood and provide a safe, calm environment for children who need quieter spaces.

5. Who is going to install the playground?

This is a vital question, as your choice will affect the design and quality of the finished project. One thing you should consider is whether your playground installation contractor has experience working with schools. There are many differences between school and public playgrounds and a school specialist, like ESP, understands the specific needs that schools have. At the same time, you want a company that provides the full package, from start to finish; a team that will design the playground with you, supply all the equipment and materials you need, build and install the playground and then provide the regular maintenance needed to ensure its ongoing safety and good working order.  Working this way helps keeps cost down and makes it easier to manage the project, enabling it to get completed quicker and with a more satisfactory outcome.

Conclusion

As you can see, there are many things to consider even before you start to design your playground upgrade. The questions here, obviously raise other questions themselves and answering these ensures that, at the end of the project, the playground you end up with ticks all the boxes.

For more information, visit our Inspiration page or if you want an informal chat, call us on 01282 43 44 45.

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How Does a School Business Manager Add Value to Pupils’ Education?

In the thirty years since the introduction of Grant Maintained Status, school management has changed dramatically. Today, with the rise of academies, much of a school’s administration falls under the leadership of the school business manager.

Far more than a bursar, the business manager is usually a member of the senior leadership team and carries out a wide range of duties. Their responsibilities often include school finance, income generation, publicity and marketing, building management, HR and health and safety.

With most senior teachers having limited management experience in these areas, it makes sense to delegate responsibilities to someone with the necessary skills so that the teaching staff can focus on educational areas: teaching and learning, curriculum, progress and attainment, etc.

However, school business management and school education management should not be conceived as being separate. As I mentioned in my recent YouTube video, The Importance of School Business Mangers, “the key objective of any school is about maximising the attainment of every child and to create as many positive experiences that they will remember,” and the business manager has a big role to play in making that happen.

Here are some of the important ways a school business manager can add value to pupils’ education.

1. Making the school improvement plan financially feasible

The purpose of any school improvement plan is to raise the attainment and achievement of pupils but putting these plans into action does have an impact on the school budget. You may need to recruit additional staff, reallocate existing staff, procure new resources or buy in third-party expertise.

A good business manager will assist here by providing robust financial management to the improvement planning process. They will help make significant savings and identify alternative funds to ensure that the school’s objects are financially viable.

2. Saving money through best value

Business managers are experts when it comes to getting the best value. They have the experience, for example, to negotiate the best contracts with the external services the school needs. This can include supply agencies, catering companies, classroom resource providers, coach hire companies and school window cleaners. The results here not only mean savings that the school can reallocate to improving teaching and learning but more efficient and better-quality services, too.

It’s not just in the procurement of resources that a business manager can improve efficiencies. They also ensure that the school makes the most effective use of its resources. Moving training days from winter to summer can save hundreds of pounds on heating and lighting bills, better management of staff absence can reduce the number of sick days and save thousands, as can moving the school’s IT server to a third-party cloud hosting company.

3. Taking responsibility for non-teaching staff

Many school business managers become the senior line manager for non-teaching staff within a school and this can have an enormous impact. One of the first big gains is that a senior teacher no longer has to fulfil this role and, thus, they’ll have more time to concentrate on school development.

More than this, however, is the way that business managers can restructure the working arrangements of the non-teaching staff so the school functions more effectively. Introducing new protocols for admin staff can help reduce the admin workload for teachers and give them more time to focus on the classroom. They can also manage the performance of non-teaching staff and ensure that effective training is put in place to enable the school to perform even better.

This can mean classrooms are cleaner, playgrounds are better supervised, teaching assistants are better allocated, photocopying is done quicker, resources are easier to find and consumables are always in stock. All of which can have a valuable impact.

4. Finding additional funding

School business managers are adept at bidding for external funding. They have the experience and skills to ensure that bids for funds are completed accurately and meet the criteria which are needed. For many schools, the amount of additional funding found by a business manager covers their salary many times over. These types of bid enable schools to undertake big capital projects which otherwise would be impossible.

Thanks to business managers, schools up and down the country have new roofs, new outdoor sporting equipment, modern IT suites, minibuses, better disabled access and extra teachers. Some funds will even cover the cost of building of new classrooms or sports halls. Of course, better facilities and resources have a positive impact on learning and help improve attainment.  

Besides submitting bids, business managers are also very good at earning extra funds from the school premises – such as letting out the rooms for adult evening classes or charging local sports teams to use the school playing fields. They can also get local businesses to sponsor school teams or events. Although these are not new ideas, many schools did not benefit from them in the past simply because staff were too focused on other things or lacked the know-how. Business managers don’t waste opportunities like these.

5. Enrichment

Education is not just about attainment. It’s also about enriching children’s lives. Here, the business manager has a role to play as well. Whilst the cost of many small enrichment activities, such as school trips, are usually helped by parental contributions, some of the bigger projects are often shelved because of lack of funds.

At ESP Play, for example, we hear from many schools who are keen to develop their school playgrounds and outdoor areas. The facilities they want will enrich the lives of students in many ways: improved physical and mental health, encouraging independence, boosting social skills, developing creativity and even enabling the creation of an outdoor classroom.

The school business manager is the key person in a school to help bring these enrichment plans to fruition. Through shrewd management, finding additional funding or careful budgeting, they are the ones that have the skills to make enrichment a reality.

6. Freeing up the Head

As the leader of the school, it’s the headteacher who drives it forward. It’s their vision and passion that motivates and inspires staff and pupils to greater achievements. With this in mind, it’s worth noting that, according to the government whitepaper, The Importance of Teaching, a school business manager can free up a third of a headteacher’s time. How valuable is that in enabling a school to improve children’s education?

Conclusion

So, how does a school business manager add value to pupils’ education? The simple answer is that they do it in many ways. They bring in much needed funds, they make sure that existing finances are used effectively, they improve the way that resources are procured and used, and they make people work smarter and in more efficient ways. Through this, they ensure that funding and resources have the biggest possible impact on children’s learning and improve their overall experience of school.

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