Monday, December 17, 2007

The problems of outdoor play for British kids

I am not positively advocating that we encourage our children to fall out of trees or get whanged off roundabouts moving at 200 rpm. But the scabophobic measures we have taken to protect our children have had consequences we could not have intended. Ed Balls yesterday called for children to rediscover the joys of the playground, and the football kickaround. He painted a Brueghelian picture of children swarming to play hopscotch and tag and British bulldog, and though we all share his ambitions he could have been more honest, frankly, about the real reasons for the decline in outdoor play, and the role of government in the disaster.

Let us take the surfaces of playgrounds, the ones that used to abrade our knees. Under an EU regulation EN 1176 local authorities are advised not to install playground equipment more than three metres high, and to use soft surfacing on the ground: hence the decline in scabs. To be fair to Brussels, this regulation is not compulsory, but authorities are so terrified of litigation that they slavishly enforce it. The measure does not seem to have made much difference to playground fatalities: there has been roughly one death every three or four years for the past 20 years. But the surface is extremely expensive, costing 7,000 pounds for 100 square metres, and that extra expense has certainly played a part in reducing the overall total of playground space available.

According to play expert Tim Gill, who has written a book on the subject, there are now roughly two square metres of public playground space for each child under 12, and that is not enough. So the next time Balls wants to talk sphericals about what the Government is doing to get more children to play outdoors, I suggest he has a couple of long introductory paragraphs about the baleful effect of over-regulation and litigation - followed by a heartfelt apology for everything he has done to encourage them.

He should then move on to acknowledge the real reason why parents are so reluctant to let their children play outside, and that is their fear of crime and thuggery - a fear that is not always unreasonable. When I was a child we used to knock around Camden on our bicycles; we used to walk to school and back without even thinking about it; and even though we used to trot off to buy Mr Whippys with a flake, we took so much outdoor exercise that an obese child was a genuine curiosity. We now have a world in which three per cent of young people carry a knife, and 20 per cent of 10-11-year-olds have been assaulted at least once in the past 12 months. Too many parks and play areas are dominated by intimidating gangs, and unless you have taken the trouble to become part of the gang, and to show the requisite levels of bravado and aggression, you may be nervous of playing in the same area.

It is a profound and sad change to the quality of children's lives, and there are several plausible explanations. One might cite the revolution in the relationship between adults and children, and the weird terror with which we all seem to regard the younger generation, and the loss of respect in the way they treat adults. There is a chronic shortage on the streets of any adult willing to exert any kind of authority - and that, these days, generally means the police. It does not help that 14 per cent of all police officers' time is spent on patrol, compared to 19.3 per cent on "paperwork"; but until we can find ways of getting more police out there, too much of our public space will be filled with a vague sense of menace.

Take that together with over-regulation of playground equipment, and no wonder children are deterred from playing outside. No wonder they are all glued to their blooming PlayStations. They have playgrounds that are at once scary in their inhabitants and tedious in their equipment - and the answer, of course, is to reverse the position. We need to stop the crazy culture of litigation, which has seen local authorities reduce the number of roundabouts they buy because roundabouts are now deemed too dangerous.

Teachers and expedition leaders should be protected from civil negligence claims unless they have shown "reckless disregard"; the law should be changed so that there is no obligation on local authorities to warn of an obvious risk (a roundabout goes round, for instance), and we must above all stop these judges from making ludicrous rulings in favour of compensation - and we could do that by insisting, as they make their rulings, that they allow for the benefits to society of encouraging kids to play outside.

What we need is less health and safety in the playground, and more safety on the streets, and no more initiatives from Mr Balls until he has got to grips with the real problem.


Britain: Do schools exist for the kids or for the teachers?

Note that the teacher below was not asked to prove HER claims. If the problem is real it is she who should have been asked to move to another school

An eight-year-old was banished from her classroom after the teacher complained she was allergic to the fabric softener used on her clothes. Hope Nichols was made to work in a corridor because her class tutor kept developing a blocked-up nose and watering eyes. The school asked Hope's mother to change the fabric softener she uses - but she refused as Lenor is the only brand that does not irritate the girl's eczema and dermatitis.

Sarahjane Nichols was also asked to consider moving her daughter to a different school, she said. As the problem has not been resolved, Hope often has to sit at the back of the class. Her teacher takes breaks when she begins to develop a reaction, during which a classroom assistant takes over. Mrs Nichols, 39, said: "My daughter's allergy means she ends up literally scratching her skin off. "She gets it on her face, arms, stomach and back. "I am very sympathetic about the teacher's problem but Hope should not have been taken out of the classroom. "It was terrible for my little girl. All the other children think is that Hope has been asked to sit outside because she smells funny."

Hope joined Howard Junior School in Gaywood, near King's Lynn, Norfolk, in September. But last month Mrs Nichols was approached by her teacher. "She asked me to stop Hope spraying perfume on herself because it was upsetting her allergy," she said. "I thought it was a joke at first. I told her she doesn't use perfume. I just use washing powder and fabric conditioner like anyone else. "I went home and didn't think too much more about it because it seemed so strange. "But a few days later I got a letter from Gregory Hill, the head, saying I must change my washing powder and conditioner or reduce the amount. "I wrote back explaining that she had dermatitis and eczema and it would upset her allergy if it was changed.

"The head then wrote to me and asked for a doctor's note to prove what I was saying. "Hope uses creams and antihistamines so I got a doctor's note. Then the head asked me to come into the school for a discussion about how to resolve the situation. "But in the days before the meeting, Hope told me she had been put in the corridor and made to do her work from there sitting at a desk on three occasions."

Mrs Nichols, who is divorced and also has a 13-year- old daughter, added: "When I had the meeting with Mr Hill he asked if I would be offended if I was asked to move Hope to a different school. "But we live just a short distance away and the next nearest place is 20-minute walk away and I don't drive."

The school said that Hope had only been asked to leave the classroom on one occasion and this was "for a very short period". Mr Hill said: "This is an extremely unusual situation and one that we are working closely with Hope's mother to try to resolve. "Hope is a valued pupil at the school and is well liked."

Lenor has been made by Proctor & Gamble since the Sixties. Spokesman John Bailey said: "You can never say the chances of getting an allergic reaction are zero but they are negligible. "Some people do have a sensitivity to certain smells but this is not an allergy. "It can produce an emotional reaction and from the sounds of it in this case, a physical reaction." Using Lenor with a different fragrance might solve the problem, he added.


Australia: A totally irresponsible government school system

Sounds a lot like Los Angeles. And Australia has nowhere near the ethnic problems of Los Angeles

It has been dubbed the roughest school in NSW. Gangs of marauding students beat one another up and even assault teachers. Staff at Queanbeyan High have threatened to take legal action after the latest brawl left teachers and a student with broken bones. Students have also set upon staff with sticks, refused to go to class and threatened teachers with violence outside school hours. The school is so dangerous, teachers recently took the extraordinary step of moving a no-confidence motion in the principal and his deputy. Talks are also under way about taking legal action against the NSW Education Department for failing to provide a safe working environment for staff and students.

The latest incident involved two separate attacks that left two teachers and a 15-year-old student seriously injured. The student's father told The Sunday Telegraph his son was king-hit from behind by a Year 12 student. "Three male teachers and one female teacher went to help my son, and were escorting him to the office when they were attacked by seven other students," he said. "One male teacher broke his ribs, another has possible fractures - and the female teacher got elbowed in the temple. "My son ended up with a broken nose and broken ribs."

The father, who asked that his name not be published, has accused the school of failing in its duty of care to protect his son. Despite the seriousness of the injuries, the school had refused to call an ambulance, he said. The school suspended all eight students, although the seven involved in the attack are believed to have been allowed back to class.

The father has written to Education Minister John Della Bosca and the NSW Teachers Federation seeking an explanation. According to staff statements obtained by The Sunday Telegraph, the incident was one of many at Queanbeyan High, described by federation officials as the roughest school in NSW. In May, seven teachers tried in vain to stop a brawl between Year 9-10 students and Year 11 students. In a statement, one of the teachers involved said a student had warned the deputy principal that a brawl was brewing. "This information should have been passed to staff on duty," the teacher said. "The deputy principal's response was that boys will be boys, and that they generally tire themselves from punching and stop before too long."

In October, a teacher helping a special-needs student who had fallen over was hit across the head with a large stick by a female student after she was told to go to class. A department spokesman said the issues raised by the union were being looked at. "The department has a zero-tolerance policy towards violence in schools," he said. [What good is a "policy"? Action is needed]


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