Flow of Ideas
Playground Risks and Handcuffed Kids: We Need Safer Schools?

Glenn Rikowski, 10th November 2006, London


When I was a kid, school playtimes and dinner breaks were exciting times. There were fights, feuds and various forms of bullying, sure. In the winter times we also made slides when it snowed, and kids would often fall over, cracking their heads or grazing their arms. But I believe that we saw it as just having fun and excitement: these were the things that kids did. No doubt in the late 1950s and early 1960s we were very naïve and unknowing about the many kinds of risks we were literally playing with. We were sleepwalkers, as Van der Graaf Generator, have it in their Godbluff album: not really aware of what we were doing.

This article is about whether kids are to play as they will at school, or, to what extent they should be supervised in their play, and how.

Risky Play

Playtimes are not so innocent today. Now, potential playtime risks are pointed out and analysed in great depth. The media take up the challenge. Social and educational researchers wade in with their insights. Thus, playtimes in schools are about forging friendships, but also about hostility. There is racism in the playground and racial teasing – even by children who are not fundamentally racist. There is sexual harassment and domination. Boys dominate physical space, as when the football match or multiple matches stretch the length and breadth of the playground. There are health and safety risks, with accidents always a possibility in the rough and tumble of playground cultures. Peter Blatchford (1998) has summed all this up in the following way:

“The view of playground cultures stemming from sociological and ethnographic studies is of a different culture to the school, with its own rules, structures and sense of festival, as well as conflict, domination and harassment” (p.13).

Thus: playtimes at school can also be sites where school oppositional cultures are mobilised and developed.

Cutting the Risks

One response to this has been to minimise these playtime risks. This ranges from heavier supervision of playtimes (with more teaching assistants and teachers ‘on the beat’ so to speak), through to suggestions about ‘organised’ playtimes and breaks, right through to banning playtimes (or recess as they say in the States) altogether (see Blatchford, 1998).

The Torphins Snowball Case crystallised some of the key issues involved. This involved a 10-year-old boy in Torphins, Aberdeenshire, being killed by ‘a giant snowball he was making’ on a Saturday (Scott, K, 2005). This mega snowball was a quarter of a tonne in weight! The Grampian police said it was a ‘freak accident’ (Ibid.). This may have led some schools to think about safety when snow was on the ground. However, a few weeks before the Torphins tragedy a school in Norwich was undertaking a risk assessment regarding letting kids out at playtime to play in the snow (see Harris, 2005). Apparently, the local education authority had demanded this:

“Staff say they had to complete a risk assessment form for the local education authority (LEA) before they could allow children to go tobogganing and throw snowballs. They claim that they had t make sure that pupils at Eaton Hall School in Norwich only threw snowballs if they were a safe distance apart – an astonishing 65ft” (Harris, 2005).

Harris noted that litigation fears were spoiling fun in the snow for kids: if they did get hurt the LEA feared parents would sue.

Perceived playtime dangers and risks are just the tip of the iceberg. The debate about risks on school trips has been longstanding (for example, see, Halpin, 2005; and Ross, 2006). Phillip Scott (2005) noted that one LEA banned ‘egg boxes for use by children in its jurisdiction’. Scott also noted the trepidation and tremors where trips for school kids are involved. He was involved in taking a choir to New England, and the plans for the trip were checked out by an LEA ‘risk manager’. However, noted Scott:

“The ultimate risk managing absurdity occurred some months later when my colleagues and I were mounting a celebratory concert for the LEA at London’s Royal Albert Hall, 50 miles from our patch, one that involved some 1,600 children from our schools. And yet, even though this time we remained on terra firma, I quickly learned that in terms of managing risk, I might as well have been planning to fly everyone to Saturn” (Scott, P., 2005).

Scott argued that the current ‘risk assessment culture’ was both patronising to teachers and restricted legitimate learning activities. It also pandered to the pecuniary interests of the legal profession, he argued. One cautious secondary school in Cornwall went so far as having a no-hugging policy for its pupils. Hugging was deemed as 'inappropriate behaviour', though the policy was later denied by the Head teacher when the press covered the story (Stewart, 2006).

Whilst bullying in the playground clearly goes on, Wise (2004) suggests that bullying at school is partly, for some bullies, a reaction to the fact that they appear to have so little control and room for autonomy in school. Cracking down on potentially risky playtime activities merely intensifies the lack of control that kids have over their school lives. Tough policing (literally) is not always the answer, either.

Safer Schools Initiative

This last point above brings me on to the Safer Schools Initiative (SSI). This was established in March 2006, and brought in by Beverley Hughes, the Children, Young People and Families Minister, and Hazel Blears, the Minister of State for Crime, Security and Communities (DfES, 2006a-b). A key part of the SSI is that police are based in schools. There is, in government-speak: ‘a joined-up approach to crime prevention, school safety, behaviour improvement and educational achievement’ (DfES, 2006b, p1).

One of the key areas in this initiative is to ensure safe playgrounds. However, one result has been that increasing numbers of children have found themselves before the youth criminal justice system after zealous police officers have been intervening in playground fights (see Brettingham 2006a-b). Gerry German of the Community Empowerment Network has noted that: “Children as young as 13 or 14 are handcuffed” (Brettingham, 2006b). Furthermore, some police attached to the SSI have been using it as an ‘intelligence gathering’ opportunity in order to track young people beyond the school gate. As Brettingham noted:

“A children’s charity says Government’s £10 million Safer Schools Initiative is criminalising teenagers for minor misbehaviour and creating a “fingerprinted” generation who will find it difficult to get jobs” (2006a).

The TES editorial (2006) appearing on the same day at Brettingham’s reports noted that:

“Already about 40,000 young people are being prosecuted for offences which 10 years ago would have been dealt with out of court, and young offenders institutions are overflowing. The partnerships seem to be adding to the numbers” (TES, 2006).

The freedom of movement of young people during break and lunchtimes is also being curtailed in some schools in order to cut down crime risks. Thus, kids in my local school, Forest Gate School, are no longer let out at lunchtimes (Metropolitan Police, 2006).

Conclusion: The No Risk Society?

The administrative clampdown on young people in schools seems to be gathering pace. Normalisation, medicalisation and criminalisation become stock responses (not last resorts) as risk aversion in how society deals with youth in general and school kids in particular runs into overdrive. How kids are treated in playtimes and lunch breaks are symptoms of this deep mistrust of them by the wider society. However, the interests of the legal profession, the Repressive Apparatuses of the state (after Althusser, 1971) the rampant fears of LEAs and Head teachers and the heavy managerialism which so oppresses teaching staff are now all bearing down on school children.

The playground has become an ideological and political battleground. The innocence of such games as conkers and marbles seems to have been all but lost.


Althusser, L. (1971) Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses: Notes Towards an Investigation, in: L. Althusser, Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, New York: Monthly Review Press.

Blatchford, P. (1998) Social Life in School: Pupils’ experience of breaktime and recess from 7 to 16 years, London: The Falmer Press.

Brettingham, M. (2006a) Pupils are branded criminals, Times Educational Supplement, 27th October, p.1.

Brettingham, M. (2006b) Dixon in the Playground, Times Educational Supplement, 27th October, p.8.

DfES (2006a) Safer School Partnerships, Teachernet, Department for Education & Skills, online at: http://www.teachernet.gov.uk/wholeschool/behaviour/saferschoolpartnerships/

DfES (2006b) Safer School Partnerships – Every Child Matters, Department for Education & Skills, updated 8th May, online at: http://www.everychildmatters.gov.uk/ete/ssp/

Halpin, D. (2005) Teachers to be protected from parental lawsuits over outings, The Times, 16th February, p.24.

Harris, S. (2005) Snowballs are banned unless you’re 65ft apart, the fun police tell pupils, Daily Mail, 25th February, p.29.

Metropolitan Police (2006) Forest Gate School, Newsletter – Forest Gate North, Forest Gate Safer Neighbourhoods Team, October.

Ross, T. (2006) New standards to protect children on trips abroad, Times Educational Supplement, 27th October, p.13.

Scott, K. (2005) Boy killed by giant snowball, The Guardian, 1st March, p.8.

Scott, P. (2005) School risk management patronises teachers, Financial Times (Letters), 25/26th June, p.12.

Stewart, W. (2006) A Week in Education, Times Educational Supplement, 10th November, p.2.

© Copyright, Flow of Ideas, Ruth Rikowski and Glenn Rikowski. Website by [whiteLayer]
Call for Authors
Printer Friendly
Order by DateAlphabetical[Close menu]