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St Mary's leads the way in outdoor play with 'OPAL' platinum award

St Mary's CE Primary, Banbury, has achieved OPAL Platinum status - the highest level of the OPAL outdoor play programme.

The school held a celebration playtime in September, where they received the award and welcomed families to see how OPAL sessions operate.

Here, headteacher Victoria Woods here shares the school's OPAL experience, why they use the programme and the real impact on the children:


'St Mary's is the oldest school in Banbury but has been able to maintain its position as an oasis of green space and safety for our community right in the heart of town. We have grown this notion over the years with Forest School and Commando Joe's, and becoming an O.P.A.L school has been key to realising the full value of our space to our children for their physical, social and emotional learning as well as for their wellbeing during and outside the school day. 

The OPAL programme offers the children in our school the opportunity to play in freedom and safety whilst taking risks and experiencing opportunities that are not always available to them generally. Many of our families have no gardens or green spaces to play and our local parks are not necessarily safe and suffer from anti-social behaviour. Our children need freedom to express themselves, get muddy, dig sand (many have never been to a beach), climb trees, ride bikes and scooters and play imaginatively.'

Developing the programme

'OPAL provides a clear structure to grow and develop play, training the team to set up develop and enhance all parts of the school grounds to make the most of whatever space school has. Safety is paramount with Risk Benefit assessment for every type of play and the children learn to assess equipment and risk too. 'Play Assemblies' challenge children to think about types of play, equipment and things like tidying up. 

We were lucky to benefit from DfE grant funding from Opening School Facilities through the North Oxfordshire School Sport Partnership, which has really helped us provision resources more rapidly than expected. The schools in NOSSP were the first to be able to bid for this funding and we are pleased to have been at the forefront again of new ways of working and adapting limited financial resources to the benefit of some of our most disadvantaged children.'

Impact in school

'We are so proud that out children now have every recognised type of play, about 20, available to them and they all play together. Lunch happens on rotation with houses going in to eat together, so play is always vertically grouped. All children are included, Nursery to Year 6 and there is no need for teachers and senior team to be dreading the 'after lunch' fall out - there isn't any!! The reduction in behaviour incidents and needs at lunchtimes is profound.

Community engagement is increased, families can stay and play out of school hours through a grant from the Opening School Facilities from the DfE, and we have donations and offers of help from parents in a way we haven't had for any other project.

Children are happy, staff and are happy and we are super proud to be an OPAL Platinum school - that means we offer one of the best play opportunities to our children at St Mary's anywhere in the country.'

St Mary's Banbury is very happy to share practice and experience with staff from other ODST schools who would like to come and see a session in action, and we've already seen other schools, such as Bampton CE Primary, begin their OPAL journey.