Daubeney Primary School
Evaluation has been an area of particular importance for Hackney Wick Public Art Programme, the school and the design team. The three year playground initiative was established with a view to supporting all schools in Hackney Wick, and the project has been devised with the intention of making evaluation findings available to the widest possible constituency.
The Experimental Playground Week was documented in detail using video and still photography. In addition participating children were asked to record their impressions and experiences in the form of paintings, written stories, recorded conversations and questionnaires. Teachers were invited by the Deputy Head to link the week’s class work to the project and to help children record their reactions day by day. The resulting documentation was intended as a source of analysis of patterns of behaviour and responses to diverse activities, materials, and situations.
Evaluation : Experimental Playground Week
Researcher in arts and education Eileen Adams was commissioned retrospectively to write an Evaluation Study of the Experimental Playground Project and this was published in June 2001. The study was based on: a sift through documentation of the week; one to one interviews with key project partners – the artist, the Head Teacher, Curator of Hackney Wick Public Art Programme etc.; adults who had experienced the week as participants or as observers; and on the visual and written documentation of the activities themselves. Children’s responses were gathered from written materials produced by pupils at the time of the Experimental Playground Project.
Key outcomes observed as a result of the temporary changes included:
- Children were stimulated by the introduction of basic and inexpensive materials, and became absorbed in creative and imaginative play.
- The dominance of football was notably reduced.
- Teachers remarked that children were calmer after coming in from breaks and more able to concentrate on class work.
- The culture of ‘negative rules’ for the playground was interrupted – ‘no kicking’, ‘no chalking’, ‘no climbing’ etc. which made the work of the playground supervisors easier and more fulfilling.
- Playground supervisors noted a change in the culture of ‘us and them’ – they enjoyed the opportunity to play with the children.
- Infant School Deputy Head noted that the project extended the good practice of the early years education where learning through play is valued.
- Greater social interaction by children – fewer children on their own or frightened – younger and older children played together.
- Supervisors appreciated the creation of areas where children could sit around and talk or play quietly.
Parent Governor, Pauline Mattocks, who helped out with the project as a volunteer expressed her wonder at the sheer transformation that had come about as a result of the project.
“Not in my wildest imagination did I think we would achieve what we did with 500 kids. … We transformed this playground into a Pandora’s Box of intrigues and surprises, enabling the children to use their imagination through play, using fairly cheap materials and a lot of hard work.”
For Hattie Coppard, the week confirmed her conviction of the need for a variety of zones or ‘rooms’.
“The children need to be calm as well as active, they need areas and structures that they can hang around in without feeling isolated or threatened.”
She noted that children loved the carpeted surfaces of the platforms for their comforting and homely associations, and that modular structures which allowed the children to alter and shape the space themselves enabled the children to “keep creating new ways of playing together”.
As well as the many positive outcomes of the week, Eileen Adams’ study acknowledged some of the frustrations. A great deal of planning and work went into the successful delivery of the ambitious programme. Some of Hattie’s ideas did not come to fruition due to lack of resources, time or practical issues such as the weather. One of her biggest challenges was the fact that teachers were so overstretched. Although she had consistent support and a good rapport with the core group of artists, volunteers, playground supervisors and the school Keeper, she was at times down-hearted at the difficulty in engaging and getting feedback from some of the teachers.
The experience highlights one of the key challenges of working in a school environment. With teachers under pressure to cope with the regular demands and tensions of school life, an additional project – although welcome in theory - can in practice create an unmanageable burden. Hattie had hoped to include INSET training for staff at this stage but this proved not to be possible. Where schools or projects are unable able to budget for support or cover for teachers this will continue to be a major issue for artists working in education.
Eileen Adams’ study provides a detailed overview of the project in mid-development, including contextual information on the school, a record of the week’s activities, and a synopsis of a wide range of personal responses to the week. The study further includes a critical assessment of the project and recommendations for its concluding stages. The study points out that more could be done to maximise the educational potential of the playground proposing the inclusion of INSET training and an interdisciplinary team to manage the playground.
Some of these suggestions have been welcomed and plans are now in place for Hattie Coppard to undertake INSET training for staff on ways of using the playground and possible links to the national curriculum.
Observations on the Design Development/Construction Period
The lengthy development and realisation period created both difficulties and opportunities. For the school the length of the project has presented some difficulties. Over the period of the project children and staff who have participated in the process have moved on. It has been a major challenge to maintain enthusiasm, engagement and a sense of ownership for pupils, staff and the community.
For Lynn Kinnear, the extended, stop-start timetable of an arts-led project presents a markedly different process from more fast-track commissions with fixed deadlines. However longer term projects such as Daubeney are valuable for her practice in that they allow time for thinking and experimentation which ultimately feed into other faster track projects.
Funding did not allow for input by a landscape architect at the concept stage, but one can speculate that the partnership and the project may have been even stronger if the two perspectives and skills of artist and architect were able to work together from the outset.
Further consideration of the role and aims of evaluation has led to plans to establish a different approach to the activity of evaluation following completion of the capital scheme. As with the overall design development of the playground, a need has been recognised to find ways of fully involving the pupils in contributing to the evaluation process.
To evaluate the completed new playground the school and Hackney Wick Public Art Programme are collaborating with the New Economics Foundation (NEF), a radical think tank and consultants in organisational development with a commitment to using democratic processes. NEF has a particular interest in developing evaluation programmes which are participative, involving stakeholders in establishing the criteria. They have set up a self-evaluation framework for Daubeney to implement on an ongoing basis, aiming to avoid evaluation which is a judgement fixed in time.
The evaluation process is managed through the School Council which has pupil representatives for each year group, staff and supervisors, and which deals with issues affecting all the school. The NEF has helped the Council to develop a hypothesis about the impact made by the changes in the playground environment, which can be tested against outcomes. Evidence is collected through interviews carried out by pupils with their class mates, and using photos of activity in the playground as visual stimuli to encourage the children to talk. The playground project is also a main focus of several School Council meetings throughout the year. The findings are being shared with the school and wider community through a feedback day and events to collate and display material gathered. At the end of the evaluation process in July 2004, findings will be presented looking at the strengths and weaknesses of the project, construction, the playground as teaching tool, and its impact on the culture of play.
The evaluation process will not only be of value in providing information for other schools hoping to pursue a similar project, but is playing a critical role in re-establishing a sense of involvement and ownership in the playground project across the whole school community.
© Copyright Jane Connarty 2003.