‘We have to be all things to our children’: how a school made sure pupils had time to play

<span>Damien Jordan, headteacher at Fairlight primary and nursery School in Brighton.</span><span>Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian</span>
Damien Jordan, headteacher at Fairlight primary and nursery School in Brighton.Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

Every Friday morning Damien Jordan can be seen walking back and forth in the local park, staring at the grass. He’s checking for dog mess and drug paraphernalia; in the next 10 minutes 30 or so of the pupils of Fairlight primary in Brighton will hit the park for their weekly football practice.

With a playground that measures just 800m2 and more than 400 children, there is no room for sports on the school grounds, so about a decade ago Jordan, headteacher at Fairlight, started practice at the park. It is just one of the ways that he, like other heads, is finding to cope with the issues many state schools are fighting; shortages of green space, shortages of staff and time, and shortages of cash.

A Guardian analysis has found that more than 500 schools have less than 1000m2 of outside space, while unpublished research shows that children have lost more than an hour of playtime every week since 1995. More than 10,500 school playing fields have been sold off in the last 35 years, and the schools that still have grounds are grappling with the cost of maintaining them. Finally, limited staff capacity means shortage of oversight for playtime.

The problem, says Jordan, is that it is the children who have the least green space at home who suffer the most from inadequate playtimes. “Cities are getting denser and the doorstep spaces are going. So we have to be all things to our families. We have to be their garden, their football pitch, the space where parents can talk to friends.”

“We are a real inner-city school” he says. “We have children who leave here on a Friday, go back to their flat and won’t go outside again until they come back here on Monday morning.”

As part of our Access to green space series, we've been looking into the amount of space that our children have at school – and how much time they get to enjoy it. Over several months, our data team put together detailed information about the amount of land owned by England’s top private schools, and then used satellite data and a number of other variables to calculate how much of that was green space accessible by the pupils.

We also looked at the amount of outdoor space available to England’s state schools, and spoke to experts about some of the issues facing our children. As Tina Farr of St Ebbes primary school in Oxford told us: “We need to start running schools in line with healthy child development. We can give them a nourishing six hours a day and we absolutely have to.”

The football practice is just one of the outlets that Jordan has created for the students: Fairlight has also worked with Opal Play – a campaigning organisation that teaches schools how to provide better quality play – to transform the playground into an adventure play space.

On a grey, February day, children are building a den out of wood and tarpaulin, swinging on ropes from under a jutting roof as well as running about playing ballgames. Under a low wooden roof makeshift swings are popular “particularly with our autistic young people” says Jordan “they really love the swinging motion”.

But even schools that do what they can to bring playtime up to a high standard can only work within the parameters of a – highly pressured – school day.

“I’ve been a head for 22 years,” Jordan says. “We are now trying to cram far more learning into the same length of day. The curriculum means that from six or seven years old, play is gone even though we know older children need play too.”

“We played football recently against a private school. Their children play football for an hour four times a week. How do they have time for that? It’s simple. Because they don’t have to do Sats.

“They also have so much more space. When we were there I had to pull half of my children out of the trees they were playing in as they don’t usually get that experience.

“Play teaches risk, resilience, turn-taking. But instead we have to teach fronted adverbials. Then our children are competing in life with children [at private schools] who get more time outdoors or playing football. How many jobs are about sitting still and listening? None of them. Work is about human interaction, thinking on your feet, having your own ideas.”

Related: Green space could be even better for young brains than we realised

In Oxford, Tina Farr is head of St Ebbes primary school on the outskirts of the city. The school recently introduced the Opal programme and has seen clear benefits.

“The impact on their wellbeing has been profound; there has been a massive decrease in low level arguments and falling out. We have fewer first aid incidents because children are developing better spatial awareness. They look up when racing buggies through the playground. They think carefully when balancing a large pile of tyres.

“And I think it’s improved their ability to deal with uncertainty.”

One of the greatest successes was finding a way for children to play football – a common source of tension in small, crowded playgrounds.

“We initially banned ballgames, too many kids being hit with balls. But several children wrote to me asking to have them back. So I had a massive meeting with children and we talked through the problems and now we have sessions that are refereed with a clear system. We all solved it together.”

She believes that nothing could be more important. “Just switch the news on and you will see the mental health crisis for children. We need to start running schools in line with healthy child development. We can give them a nourishing six hours a day and we absolutely have to.”