Are they bonkers to ban conkers?

8th December 2000 at 00:00
Safety-conscious schools are outlawing playground games enjoyed for generations. Susannah Kirkman reports

Safety-conscious schools are outlawing playground games enjoyed for generations. Susannah Kirkman reports THE most poignant image to emerge from the latest research into school playtimes is a discarded stump, all that is left of a magnificent playground tree. It was worn smooth by generations of village children climbing on it but was felled before an Office for Standards in Education inspection.

The headteacher admitted that no child had fallen off the tree and been injured in the seven years she had been at the school. But it did not matter. A local

education authority adviser had warned her that inspectors would "have you for that". The tree had to go.

In the search for safety,

over-protective school staff are in danger of taking all the fun and spontaneity out of playtimes, says a new study. Sarah Thomson, who carried out the research as part of her education doctorate at Keele University, discovered that football had been banned in three of the six primary schools she surveyed. "This school bans all ball games,

particularly football," said one head.

British Bulldog was not allowed at any of the schools, and conkers were seen "as an offensive weapon because there had been parental complaints about injuries". One school had banned skipping because some girls had wrapped the ropes around their necks and fallen over after tying their legs together for three-legged races.

Having studied the playtimes of 1,000 children "throughout all the seasons" in three counties - Staffordshire, Shropshire and Lancashire - Sarah Thomson is now convinced that excessive restraints are being placed on play. One head said he would like to "ban all playtimes as they are a nightmare".

She has also concluded that many school playgrounds are as "barren, sterile and unimaginative" as they were 30 or 40 years ago. "If they are equipped with anything, it is usually furniture or items that specify designated activities," she says. "Many school playgrounds have benches and quiet areas where children are encouraged to sit and not run around."

The introduction of plastic playhouses and other playground equipment - which are often bought with money raised by parents just before an

inspection - may do nothing to improve the situation, she believes. "The playground then becomes an area not for

spontaneous, creative play but one resembling a well-equipped hamster's cage."

Thomson says it is important not to exaggerate the problem. "Not all school playgrounds are sterile spaces full of docile,

obedient children," she says.

She also acknowledges that the ultra safety-conscious schools are responding to a change in public attitudes. A recent MORI poll found that 57 per cent of parents would seek compensation if their child suffered an injury at school which they felt was the fault of the staff.

Teachers' concerns about school safety have also been heightened by tragedies such as the 1996 Dunblane shootings and the 1997 Wolverhampton machete attack, she says.

Lunchtime supervisors at one Shropshire primary school now carry rape alarms.

Criticism by inspectors is another worry for schools. Oneof the schools had received negative comments about playtime procedures in its most recent OFSTED report.

Another problem is the lack of national, standardised health and safety procedures which apply to all schoolchildren. The Health and Safety Act protects school visitors and contractors, but the regulations do not apply to pupils. This means that decisions on health and safety issues and the burden of ensuring pupils' safety are often passed to individual heads, the study


Nevertheless, the research

suggests that fears about

children's safety have sometimes produced an almost paranoid response, where staff are

frightened to apply Elastoplast to a child's graze in case it leads to an allergic reaction. "Wet paper towels are the answer to

everything now we are no longer allowed to put on a plaster," one teacher said.

However, Sarah Thomson says that one of her saddest

findings is that some traditional

playground games are

disappearing, not because of the influence of television or social precocity but because of

school constraints.

"All the schools I visited saw playtime as a time that could not be left entirely to the children's wishes," she says. "Furthermore, it seemed that many of the

children's attempts to play were extinguished by the same

supervising adults who complained that children 'did not play'.

"I observed quite organised games prevented for a variety of reasons. For instance, at the beginning of one summer lunch hour when there was a brief absence of staff, a number of

children had made two teams for a game of rounders. As staff appeared this game of rounders was stopped because the very action of throwing the rounders' bat backwards after a hit was considered dangerous to the rest of the team.

"It seems that the search for a safe, disciplined playground is as real a constraint to freedom as the iron railings and wooden fencing that prevent the children leaving the premises."

"Playground or Playpound: the contested terrain of the primary school playground", by Sarah Thomson, Department of Education, Keele University, Keele, Staffordshire ST5 5BG. E-mail at:


"SINCE the Office for Standards in Education was set up, the playground has been sidelined. Play in any form has been stopped in schools because there has been such a great emphasis on literacy and numeracy. This has taken over our lives and play has lost its place in school."

"TEACHERS have so much hassle at school today, what with all the paperwork, inspections etc that children are not encouraged to bring in their own games because it is yet more hassle and requires

further management. Children might argue about whose

game it is, and then if it is lost there are accusations of


"I FEAR accidents and injuries most. Some parents attempted to sue this school for inadequate supervision because the child had been injured in the playground. They were then able to apply for legal aid so it did not cost them anything, and consequently the LEA became involved. "The LEA asked the school to produce evidence and members of staff were interviewed. The parents eventually dropped the case."

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