Outstanding Play in an Outstanding School – A Beacon Rising

If you wanted to describe an outstanding place to play would you think of primary schools? Clearly OFSTED thought so when they mentioned the outstanding quality of play at a South Gloucestershire School and the way it supported learning behaviours as one of the contributions to their ‘outstanding’ judgement. To follow this up the school has just joined the handful of schools in the South West to achieve the highest level possible, Platinum, in the OPAL Awards (Outdoor Play and Learning) for primary schools.
I recently visited Beacon Rise Primary School on the north edge of Bristol to carry out the OPAL awards audit at the invitation of Head Teacher Chris Thomas. OPAL is a programme of mentored support, training and resources and a quality mark which I developed to support school improvement through play, during my six years as play adviser within the South Gloucestershire Learning and School Effectiveness Team. I was shown around the school grounds by Katie, the school’s playworker. She is employed to lead on all aspects of planning, resourcing and improving play. It was clear from our discussion that Katie was key to the success of the school’s new culture of play. From talking to her I could see that she has what you might describe as ‘the bug’; a passion for play, and an infectious joy in what it does for children. As I was here to do an awards audit she was keen to reassure me that the resources were not just on display for my sake but always available to the 400 pupils.

In the lower playground we passed the games and dressing up areas. Here there wereBeacon ris child balancing blankets laid out under sheltered areas with great variety of toys, games, clothes and equipment. Katie explained that they put all of the resources out every day so the choices are the children’s, not the adults. We passed the water play area. There were a few children constructing a long run of pipes and guttering, discussing how to improve the design to lose less water. I expressed surprise that there were not more children involved in the water play. Katie said that because the children knew it was there every day and because there was so much else on offer that there was not a big deal about it. ‘Sometimes its really popular and other days no one uses it – which is fine’.

As we walked past a group of children constructing a den out of blankets and cardboard boxes a girl asked if I had seen the chickens yet. Katie explained we were on the way there. Before we got to the chickens we passed an area of trees festooned with ropes, hammocks, tape and cushions and children. The trees were marked with bands of different coloured tape. I was told that this was colour coding for how high Key Stage 1 and 2 were allowed to climb. Katie said it wasn’t as strictly followed now, but it had been useful as part of the process of introducing tree climbing after many years of prohibition. She explained that part of the journey the school was on was changing the way the team of supervisors saw themselves, the idea of playwork was new to many of them. They had all had an introduction to playwork training and had discussed the idea of balancing risk and benefit. Katie said:

The supervisors were reassured by the talk about risk, to learn that they will not be sued and that what is happening in playtimes is part of a school plan and guided by a policy which the Local Authority supports.”

Along the hedgerow was an area where the grounds maintenance team dumped all of the clippings and logs, this also had additional tarps, ropes, tyres and scrap and was the messy den area. It reminded me of the kind of play provision I had seen on a visit to schools in Sweden; messy, cheap and based on the values of trust and independence. Finally we arrived at the chickens. Looking after the chickens was, Katie told me, one of the most prized activities and just about the only thing that had to be allocated by an adult, so that the chickens didn’t get totally overwhelmed by the number of carers. Children cleaned out the pens, collected eggs and were allowed to stroke the chickens. Some had ‘recently been lost to foxes but they had been replaced and it all put down to more learning experiences.’ She clarified we were talking about chickens and not children.

The highlight at the end of the tour was the play landscape, sculpted from the sloping hillside and landscaped for play by Green Play Project. It includes teepee frames for den making, a raised house, a large hill with a sand pit at the top, twin tunnels, willow planting, wild-flowers, bamboo jungle, boulders, logs, ropes, netting, net-works of paths, plants and a wooden platform. Children had taken scrap from the large amount available and built their own structures within the teepee frames and were using bits and pieces as props in all kinds of imaginative games which ranged all over the landscape.

When we went inside I got a chance to talk to Chris the Head Teacher in more depth about what the impact had been on the school. He told me:

Behaviour – no doubt. When I started here every playtime and lunchtime was spent dealing with the behaviour issues of an endless stream of children outside of my door, and now I have my lunch in peace and then walk around the grounds to chat with children who are playing happily. I think we are nearly at stage now where there is enough for everyone to find things that they want to do, but we are not stopping here – we will continue to make it even better.”

I believe that the benefits that Chris has noticed are due to much more profound changes than fuller occupation of the children. I think that the children at Beacon Rise are starting to experience some of the deeper benefits of play, they are increasing their ability to problem solve and negotiate, they are becoming more able to initiate and sustain activity themselves, they are more resilient when things go a bit wrong and able to experiment with and explore the complex relationships between their inner lives, their social world and the physical world. I was delighted to hear that the schools recent OFSTED inspection had drawn a similar conclusion. The inspectors acknowledged that the schools’ excellent play opportunities supported good learning behaviours. Chris pointed out the significance of the change in language around behaviour and play.

In the past they would have talked about quiet, well-behaved compliant children. When the inspector was here we had a child hit in the face with a football and all of the usual bumps scrapes and falling out. They were far more interested in how we foster behaviours which supported good learning – isn’t that what play is all about?”

Links:  WEB, like OPAL on Facebook, follow OPAL on Twitter: @stateofplay62

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Comments
6 Responses to “Outstanding Play in an Outstanding School – A Beacon Rising”
  1. Hilly says:

    What a brilliant school..I never know if my kids are making it up,when they do their imitations of the staff going through the list of playground rules and recently the no climbing trees has become official.

  2. Kenneth says:

    Amazing blog! Is your theme custom made or did you download it from somewhere?
    A theme like yours with a few simple tweeks would really
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  3. opalcic says:

    Many thanks for the comments. PLL I think it is essential that schools form broadly supported play polices which express the values and principles of the majority of the school community. In the past I have had OFSTED inspect some of my other highest level OPAL schools and completely ignore the quality of the play, I think maybe there is hope of a shift but only if schools understand what they are aiming to achieve and why. Schools don’t understand playwork, but they are used to managing change and are capable of providing fantastic play opportunities given support and encouragement.
    Plexity, pretty close with the time span, I started work with the school five years ago and despite a change of head, they have continued to follow a carefully planned out course.

  4. plexity says:

    Well what can I say?

    I loved this.

    I’m an old playwork dinosaur and if you had asked me ten years ago if it were possible for primary schools to totally get play and playtime, I would’ve said – maybe,a few, it’s not their fault, it’s all the pressures and so on, and if you’d asked me if it was possible not only for a primary school to totally get play and playtime AND get an outstanding for it from Ofsted, I would’ve just said – NO! and I would’ve said – I will eat my hat!

    (Eating-related expressions of incredulity seem to be the emerging theme in these comments)

    Superb piece: beautifully expressed, nuanced, diplomatic, great content, engaging and winning words, great understanding, knowledge worn lightly – the rewards of sustained work over the long-term (6 years minimum, I assume).

    THE LESSON I’D LIKE US ALL TO TAKE FROM THIS IS THAT WE CAN ONLY PRODUCE WORK LIKE THIS OVER A PERIOD OF YEARS.

    Long-term thinking in government used to mean one or more generations – 30 or 50 years. These days, when politicians talk long-term, they usually mean ‘before the next reshuffle or the next election’. Six months, maybe a year or two. Not enough, minister, not enough.

    This piece made my day.

    Thank you.

  5. Heartwarming story, Michael, thanks for sharing it. It will be interesting to have a more detailed look at Beacon Rise’s Ofsted report. One of the behaviours schools are often unsure about is ‘appealing’ over Ofsted report issues, when they feel they have been unfairly judged over a play (or more often, safeguarding) issue. The more schools that take posession of Ofsted reports praising the quality of play and the outdoor environment, the easier it becomes for all schools to have higher expectations of their own inspectors. I know EY inspectors are now being offered training in how to identify high quality outdoor learning and play – not so sure the same is true for Primary inspectors and I’d be prepared to wager my next hot meal that Secondary inspectors aren’t…

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