The new player-managers
In a room just off the school hall, 10-year-old Liam Green is having his first job interview. His application form was well filled in and now he has to impress the panel - lunch-time supervisors Jeanette Hickey and Linda Lee. He shuffles his feet and stares at his fingers, but manages to answer the questions convincingly. He'd like the job because he's keen to help the younger children to play. Yes, he'll even stop in the middle of a game of football if a child needs to be taken in for first aid, he says.
Outside, in the playground at Littlebourne C of E Primary School, near Canterbury, Kent, Chloe Wren-Lowry, aged eight, is teaching some Year 1 children French skipping with a brightly-coloured rope. Elsewhere other five-year-olds are playing with quoits, there's a hopscotch game going on, a snatch of "In and out of the dusty bluebells" can be heard, and a conga line of six-year-olds dances by.
Meanwhile, at Headley Park County Primary School in Bristol, Year 2 and 3 children are playing games such as oranges and lemons, statues, skipping rope games and daisy chain with four distinctly mature playmates. Some have songs and rhymes to accompany them, such as: "Where's the ball, ball, ball? Behind the wall, wall, wall", "Alley, alley, oop" and "In and out of the dusty window".
There's not a football in sight. There are no cliques of girls scattered along the periphery of the playground, nor any incidents of "accidental" pushing and shoving. In fact, the scene is remarkably harmonious.
Both schools, is seems, have found the same solution to lethargic and disruptive playtimes, but have introduced playground monitors from opposite ends of the age spectrum.
"Children today tend to be passive," says Littlebourne headteacher Gillian Moody. "If they're not being entertained, they don't know what to do with themselves. You don't see them playing imagination games or acting out stories from books. Playground games aren't handed down any more.
"Inevitably they either complain of boredom or they cause trouble. Like any other school, we had arguments and squabbles. Supervising the children could be depressingly negative."
The school's answer is a two-part scheme: jobs for the children as playground supervisors' assistants and some old-fashioned games. To help, the lunch break has been cut by 15 minutes to one hour and the school has bought some traditional playground equipment.
Sarah Salmond, reception teacher and personal, social and health education (PSHE) co-ordinator at Headley Park, echoes Miss Moody. "These days, when you tell children to go off and play, they say: 'We don't know what to do'. And without activities, they get into mischief through boredom, or football tends to dominate the playspace. We wanted to find a way of making playtime a more positive experience, and get them to socialise."
The school's anti-bullying working party hit on the idea of inviting the local church's Over-50s Club to come and teach the children traditional games in a bid to give playtime more structure. To prevent any bullying, non-competitive activities would be encouraged.
Audrey Love, secretary of St Peter's Church's Over-50s Club, recalls Jenny Purnell, one of the Headley Park governors, first asking her members if they could compile a list of games they used to play. Originally, the idea was that school staff would teach the children some of them. But then the club was asked if some members would like to supervise the children in the playground.
"I knew they were a game bunch," says Jenny. "But although all are active grandparents, finding volunteers wasn't easy."
"Being confronted with a class of children can be a bit daunting," says Audrey, who has the distinction of having been the first classroom assistant in Bristol and is also a governor of another school.
"Eventually, we came up with a core group of six, and after a brainstorming meeting with the governors, we came up with games that children can play without supervision." Like others in the group, she was once a parent at Headley Park.
The club members work with one class at a time, dividing the children into six groups and spending 10 minutes on each game. When the whistle blows after 10 minutes, the groups move on to the next game.
There are unforeseen benefits for the children. "It gives them team spirit," says Audrey, "which is important, especially today, when there's so much emphasis on individual achievement.
"When our kids were little, we didn't have money but we did things together as a family. Now, children have computers and TV and seem more like little adults than children."
At Littlebourne, this grown-up attitude is being put to good use.
An in-school poster campaign advertises for supervisors' assistants. A job description and application form, asking why you want the job, about any previous experience and qualities you would bring to the post, were drawn up. Each post is for one week. The incentives are a badge for your week of duty, a certificate and a special end-of-term tea with the headteacher and the supervisors.
The midday supervisors have put enormous effort into the scheme, says Miss Moody. "They interview the children and work with them. When we started last summer their research involved a lot of hopscotch, not to mention racking their brains and searching through books for games and skipping rhymes."
Twenty-four applicants were interviewed initially and all were successful. Miss Moody says special educational needs children benefit from being given some responsibility, kudos and a chance to care for others. No one is turned down but you can be sacked. You can also resign.
The assistants - mainly key stage 2 pupils - get the playground equipment out and put it away. They teach the younger children the games the supervisors have taught them and they escort upset or injured children inside.
The children are allowed to ask an adult to help them to write the application form as long as the ideas are their own. One Year 5 girl wrote:
"I would not let my friends get away with things. I'm not a silly type of person." More typical was the girl who wrote: "I would like to make playtimes happier and make some new games up for the infants."
Miss Moody says there has been a noticeable decline in lunchtime trouble. "The first part of the afternoon is no longer taken over by playtime squabbles and the children are thinking hard about their responsibilities towards each other and towards adults. And they're entertaining themselves."
Midday supervisor Linda Lee says: "We must look a bit of a sight skipping and singing 'I like coffee, I like tea, I like Debbie in with me.' But it's been worth it. The children aren't bored any more and they don't fight as much.
"If you gave them an open space before, they would stand there and not know what to do. Now they'll hula hoop."
Jeanette Hickey says: "We're not always saying 'Don't do this' and 'You can't do that'. We join in the games and we're more like a friend or an aunty. It's much more rewarding for us, too."
Gloria Lawrence, one of the Over-50s playmates at Headley Park, says: "The first time we came, we were a bit nervous. But the children were polite and were glad to see people taking an interest in them.
"Sarah's told us how much the children enjoy our visits. One of the girls came up to me recently and said: 'I like it that we can all use the playground when we play these games. Usually it's only the boys - and we don't get a look in.'" The initiative has been the catalyst for focusing attention on playtimes. New equipment has been bought and, in response to questionnaires that children were given on bullying and what changes they would like to see, a game and age group rota is being introduced. A popular quiet area is also going to be developed.
In addition, there are plans for the school council to devise a pupil charter as part of the school's PSHE programme, which would clearly lay out what is acceptable and what is unacceptable social behaviour.
As for the Over-50s members, they have become something of a local sensation. "Other schools are becoming jealous of Headley Park," beams Audrey. "I went into my grandchildren's school the other day and a couple of them said to me: 'When are you coming here?' "