Injury blame fears are putting outdoor activities in jeopardy and wrecking children's opportunities, claims Welsh Assembly. James Graham reports
The compensation culture is driving schools to clamp down on breaktime activities, even though play is vital to children's development. That is the view of the Welsh Assembly government, which plans to tackle the "no win, no fee" style of litigation that has led to schools being sued for injuries in the playground.
It describes this as the greatest challenge it faces in providing for children's play needs. And the Assembly has thrown down the gauntlet in a consultation document published by its play policy implementation group.
Mike Greenaway, one of the report's authors, said he had heard of Welsh heads banning ball games and running. One school had placed foam on the edges of tables to prevent injuries.
"Considerable anecdotal evidence suggests that schools are erring on the side of caution in a misguided attempt to avoid litigation," he said.
The report sets out a series of proposals with the aim of improving opportunities for children to learn, develop and get fit through play.
It states: "There is evidence that the decision of play providers to increasingly limit the play opportunities they provide for children is based upon the insurer's reluctance to provide cover rather than upon the play needs of the children."
It sees litigation as a pivotal issue, although the document does not explain how the Assembly should tackle the problem.
Mr Greenaway, director of the charity Play Wales, which campaigns for better play areas, said: "If this doesn't get resolved much of the other recommendations will come to nothing. It's a pivotal issue."
Heledd Hayes, education officer, National Union of Teachers Cymru, welcomed the document for "bringing some common sense". But Geraint Davies, secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers Cymru, thinks the Welsh Assembly should take a tougher stance.
"Teachers have suffered for far too long from the compensation and blame culture. What is really needed is a cast-iron, almost foolproof insurance scheme from the Assembly or central government that will protect teachers."
Brian Lightman, of the Secondary Heads Association Cymru, said:
"We would welcome anything to reduce the climate of litigation but I'm not quite sure how the Assembly will achieve that.
"It would require a change in the law and that's a major issue."
The group's other recommendations for improving play provision include training to help school staff and trainee teachers promote play, and for children to be encouraged to play outside in all weathers - instead of staying in and watching videos or taking part in other adult-led activities.
The group also wants schools to make more of their playing fields which it says are often the only green spaces in urban areas.
It has called for an end to "training yard" style playgrounds and the Assembly has already started working with Learning through Landscapes, a charity that supports schools that want to change their grounds.
Paul Montague, a teacher at Cyfarthfa high school in Merthyr Tydfil, worked with the organisation earlier this year. A group of his pupils with special needs turned a strip of land by the school entrance into a flower bed.
He said: "They got a lot from it. Because the whole school could see what they had achieved they were full of admiration.
"It was probably the only thing they had done in school where they had achieved, so it had a huge effect."