Play England has reported that CACHE (Council for Awards in Care, Health and Education) has closed its Level 2 Award and Certificate, Level 3 Award and Level 4 Award and Certificate qualifications to new registrations. The other main awarding organisation, City and Guilds are also now only open for registrations of full Diplomas at levels 2, 3, and 5, although they are still offering the Level 4 Award. All of these qualifications, for both awarding organisations, are only available for registration until November 2017.
According to Play England, these qualifications, vital to the growth of a professional playwork sector for two decades, no longer fit within the Regulated Qualifications Framework (RQF) that replaced the former Qualifications and Credit Framework (QCF) under the Coalition Government.
Under the RQF, the ‘stepping stone’ awards and certificates, which could previously lead incrementally to full diplomas via the credit system, is being phased out. Thus, when existing qualifications come up for renewal, unless they are suitable for conversion to the new framework they are being withdraw, in spite of many playworkers and their employers preferring the modular approach.
But the prospects of playwork in England adapting to this new context are affected by a funding squeeze. With registrations for playwork qualifications declining because of a dearth of available finance, awarding organisations are finding it harder to make the business case for the development of new ones. At a roundtable meeting at the National Playwork Conference in Eastbourne last week, co-hosted by Play England and the Playwork Foundation, it was agreed to lobby CACHE and City and Guilds, to extend registration of the level 2, 3 and 5 qualifications beyond the end of the current year. The two organisations have written to the awarding bodies and are encouraging playwork trainers and employers to do the same.
Nicola Butler, chair of Play England, says: ‘Playwork is a highly skilled job. Parents, playworkers and employers all want the playwork profession to have the training that is needed for the job, but while most playwork employers would like to be able to invest more in professional development of their workforce but are prevented from doing so by the lack of public funding’.
So what are the reasons for this decline in the playwork sector after so many years of growth? One factor is the partial de-regulation of the school-age play and childcare sector. Since September 2014, there has been no statutory requirement for out-of-school clubs and holiday play-schemes to employ staff with ‘full and relevant’ childcare or playwork qualifications. (Over-8s and open-access providers have never been required to register).
At least as significant as the change in regulatory requirements has been the effect of cuts to local authority play services, which in many places have been withdrawn altogether. A 2014 report showed that capital and revenue spending on children’s play by England’s local authorities from 2010-13 fell by 50% and 61% respectively and it is clear that deep cuts have continued.
Many believe that playwork is now in something of an existential crisis, certainly in England. 10 years ago, the first phase of a 10-year national play strategy included funding to qualify 4,000 playworkers and a new graduate level qualification for playwork managers. Since then, the government has, according to the Children’s Rights Alliance for England, ‘undermined’ children’s right to play by abandoning the play strategy and not having a minister with responsibility for play policy for the first time since the 1980s; a situation that remains, in spite of the calls for a wide ranging national play policy by an All Party Parliamentary Group on children’s health in 2015.
What does all this mean for children? Most obviously, vital play services such as staffed adventure playgrounds (where playwork originated) are being closed. In some places these are being replaced with fixed equipment play areas, as in Watford; in others, such as Battersea Park, children can now indulge in ‘tree-top adventures’ for between £20 – £38 a session, where they used to play for free on structures that they had helped to build. Wendy Russell of the University of Gloucestershire estimates there only 150 traditional adventure playgrounds remaining in Britain, compared to around 500 at their peak; and with the erosion of playwork training and the on-gong pressures on funding, she has called those that remain an ‘endangered species’.
Less apparently, but perhaps even more significantly (certainly for larger numbers of children) the removal of a requirement for qualified staff means that children attending after-school and holiday play services – not voluntarily, let’s remember, but because their parents need to work – are now much more likely to be supervised either by classroom assistants or staff with no training at all; often on school premises.
When Labour introduced the concept of ‘wrap-around’ services as a key development of its ‘childcare revolution’, it was quick to distance itself from the term ‘extended schools’; but what the abandonment of playwork practice as the benchmark for quality in out-of-school provision means for many children, is that they are now effectively in school for up to 10 hours a day.
A New Playwork Apprenticeship
The one area of potential growth for the playwork training sector is apprenticeships. The government is introducing an Apprenticeship Levy, although most small centres are not eligible for this funding unless subcontracted by larger providers. On this point, the Playwork Foundation is concerned that a high proportion of the few larger centres offering playwork apprenticeships employ trainers and assessors who are ‘not occupationally competent’.
A group of playwork employers has submitted an expression of interest to develop a new Playwork Trailblazer apprenticeship, which aims to: enable employers to access playwork apprenticeships; clarify what they should cover; develop the skills needed for quality playwork provision; and reinforce that they need to be delivered by trainers and assessors fully competent in playwork.
An edited version of this article was published in Children and Young People Now on 14 March 2017
This article is about playwork qualifications in England. For an overview of the situation in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales read this