Glenn Rikowski: Learning to the Max, with Play off the Tracks

Glenn Rikowski: Learning to the Max, with Play off the Tracks

Learning to the Max

The UK’s most expensive school – the Thomas Deacon Academy in Peterborough – which took £46.4million to build (Bates, 2007) started up in September. With 2,200 pupils, the ‘superschool’ replaced three existing schools in the city. It was designed by Lord Foster – the guy who conjured up the ‘giant gherkin’ tower here in London. However, Thomas Deacon has no playground. There will be no traditional play times, but there will be a 30-minute lunch break, with informal breaks during lesson times, and pupils can drink water in lessons. They can also go to the toilet without putting up their hands, and there will be sporting activities in the afternoons for those who want to stay after 2.30pm when children can leave (Asthana, 2007b, p.3). The school is not unique in having no playground. The Unity Academy in Middlesborough opened in 2002 without a playground; though after some criticisms from inspectors a playground was eventually built (Bates, 2007). Alan McMurdo, the academy’s head teacher, justifies the ‘no playtime’ position thus:

“This is a massive investment of public money and I think what the public want is maximum learning. They recognise that youngsters can play in their own time, play in their local communities” (BBC, 2007, p.1).

Hence, it seems that ‘learning to the max’ underpins the no playtime policy. McMurdo’s suggestion that kids can mingle freely and play in their local communities should be read in conjunction with reports that today’s children are less likely to play outside than in previous generations (see Guldberg, 2007). A recent report from the UK Children’s Society argued that:

“…parents are denying children the freedom to mess around with friends, a freedom that we ourselves once enjoyed” (Guldberg, 2007, p.1).

It’s not only parents. Here in Newham, police move on groups of young people when they gather together, and in some areas there are public notices setting out the rights of the police to send children home if they are found to be congregating.


Head teacher Alan McMurdo has put forward some arguments for wiping playtime off his school’s agenda. First, he argues: “Pupils won’t need to let off steam because they will not be bored” (in Bates, 2007, p.4), and secondly, “Research has shown that if children concentrate on lessons throughout the day, then their work improves” (in Beckford, 2007, p.1). The first argument rests on a massive assumption. The second argument is poorly constructed. It may well be the case that if children concentrate on lessons all day then their work improves. But that begs the question: will abolishing playtime help their overall concentration levels? Miles Delap, the school’s project manager, offered other justifications for the no playtime policy:

“For a school of this size, a playground would have had to be huge. That would have been almost uncontrollable. We have taken away an uncontrollable space to prevent bullying and truancy” (in Bates, 2007, p.4).

Again, the first argument begs the question: but why build a school for 2,200 pupils in the first place? This is hardly human-scale education. Secondly, it seems a rather defeatist attitude regarding bullying and truancy to argue that playtime has to be abolished. Kids who don’t bully and truant have to forego their playtime because of bullies and truants: where’s the justice in that?

Another argument is that pupils will be treated more like adults in the regime at Thomas Deacon. For:

“They [the school’s leaders] think pupils should be treated like company employees and do not need ‘unstructured’ time to play games and kick footballs around. And they claim there is no need for a playground because pupils won’t be bored by their ‘learning experience’” (Bates, 2007, p.3).

However, surely the reality of capitalist work is that employees do in fact experience periods of boredom. Stating the obvious: pupils are not employees, and one parent at the school argued that:

“If the school intends to treat the children as employees they should take into account the government’s own laws on child labour which clearly state that children should not work for more than four hours without taking a break of at least one hour, and that children under 12 should not be employed at all” (in Johnson, 2007, p.1).

Furthermore, if the kids are to be treated as employees then they should be paid. Perhaps they should join trade unions too. The argument that industrialising learning enhances both it and general wellbeing is shaky, as:

“… parents, educational experts and health campaigners believe banning teenagers from letting off steam during the school day will increase their risk of becoming obese, and could damage their attention spans during lessons” (Beckford, 2007, p.1).

The health issue is important, and so is the development of social skills away from the gaze of the teacher’s eye. As Mick Brookes, General Secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers has noted regarding Thomas Deacon Academy:

“Children need the opportunity to interact and play. Not being able to get out and have a breath of fresh air during the day doesn’t seem to me to be a healthy state of affairs” (in Beckford, 2007, p.1).

McMurdo has promised to have a review of the policy (Asthana, 2007b, p.2), but this state of affairs should never have arisen. Yet academies can embark on such ‘experiments’ given that they are not subject to local authority control to the same extent as other schools. It is possible in future some academies might be ‘all age’ schools, including primary age kids. The National Primary Headteachers’ Association have argued for the importance of play for primary age children (in Asthana, 2007a). It is to be hoped that this is taken note of when all-age academies are built.


What is at issue here is intensification of the social production of labour power. Labour power is the capacity to labour. As I have explained elsewhere:

“The social production of labour-power in capitalism refers to those processes and institutions concerned with developing and enhancing the quality of labour-power as human capital in contemporary society. The social production of labour-power is a process that is highly fragmented between institutions (schools, colleges, universities and training organisations). It includes on-and-off-the-job training. It also includes an ‘automatic’ phase as labourers develop their skills, attitudes and other labour-power attributes on-the-job as they labour (Marx, 1867). Systems of work-based learning attempt to formalise this” (Rikowski, 2005, p.7).

Thus, as education plays a role in socially producing labour power, cutting out playtimes intensifies the process, though having informal breaks may work against this intensification. The class (and classroom) struggle is therefore likely to be asserted in conflicts over these informal breaks at Thomas Deacon Academy. If students begin to establish their ownership of these break times then the establishment of formal break times may be a strategy that the school management resorts to.


Asthana, A. (2007a) No break, no bells in school of the future, The Observer, 26th August, at:,,2156426,00.html

Asthana, A. (2007b) Young pupils learn best through play, say heads, The Observer, 7th October, p.9.

Bates, D, (2007) £46m school that has no playground, Daily Mail, 7th May, at:

BBC (2007) No playground for 'super school', BBC News, at:

Beckford, M. (2007) School without play area bans break times, Daily Telegraph, 10th May, at:

Guldberg, H. (2007) Are children being held hostage by parental fears? Spiked Online, 11th June, at:

Johnson, C. (2007) Playtime at Thomas Deacon Academy in Peterborough, online petition at:

Marx, K. (1867) [1977] Capital: A Critique of Political Economy – Volume 1, London: Lawrence & Wishart.

Rikowski, G. (2005) Distillation: Education in Karl Marx's Social Universe, Lunchtime Seminar, School of Education, University of East London, Barking Campus, 14th February:

Volumizer, 28/10/07