The school playground is an important part of every primary pupil's life. It can be a creative break in the school day anticipated with pleasure or a time when the child is cold, bored and fearful of bullies.
Many children today have little experience of playing "out". Parental fears keep them locked up in their homes or at best in their garden. The school playground is one of the few places where they ought to be able to play freely.
Children can spend up to 20 per cent of the school day in the playground. But this important slice of the child's school life is mostly left to chance as to whether it is a happy or horrible experience. What are they doing and who is providing the play leadership?
Under the Children Act there should be one adult to every eight children under the age of eight, while the ratio for the over-eights should be one adult to 12 children.
In the playground, however, schools are lucky if they have one supervisor for every 50 children. These supervisors have a very difficult job. The children are released from the classroom ready to let off steam. There may be little in the playground to stimulate their play, and yet these few women (they are usually women), are expected to supervise them eating, move them between playground and dining room and provide them with a positive and happy experience in the playground. They need to be a combination of a good parent, play leader, first aider, confidante, peace keeper and much more.
They are under-paid, often under-valued and definitely over-worked. This is a very skilled job, and yet most of them are never offered any training and frequently get little support from the other staff. Rules, sanctions and rewards are imposed on them, new arrangements for playtime are made without consulting them, and equipment is bought and installed without thought of the implication for its management.
Aware of these problems, Surrey Play Council commissioned research on the quality of play at school. This has been done in co-operation with one of county's educational psychologists, Sonya Hinton, who felt she spent too much time sorting out playground problems rather than educational ones. From that research a workshop session has been developed for Surrey schools that involves all the staff, supervisors and governors. It provides a co-ordinated approach to managing the playground, creates an action plan and recognises the contribution that supervisors make to the school ethos.
Training sessions are being run for groups of supervisors from clusters of schools. The supervisors appreciate the opportunity to share ideas, help solve problems, look at issues of behaviour and equal opportunities. For most of them it is the first time they have been offered any training or support for the job they do.
It is true that local authorities have produced training packs explaining how supervisors should manage playground behaviour and offering ideas for games, play activities, and "wet playtimes". But, how many schools have provided their supervisors with the time and the pay to undertake these courses?
Where courses are being developed for supervisor training, have the schools or local authorities considered how this training can be built into some nationally-recognised qualification? Mid-day supervision should not be the beginning and end of the job but the first step towards an interesting and satisfying career which could include working with children and young people in different settings.
Many of the after-school clubs now being set up in schools have mid-day supervisors as their play leaders. The two jobs fit well together, they require much the same skills. Supervisors are often dealing with children they already know.
These are people whose training and qualification needs are only beginning to be considered. They have a right to be included by training and enterprise councils or colleges of further education as potential students who need to be part of the NVQ or some other nationally-recognised qualification.