The demand for more flexible hours of childcare would seem to be met by adapting provision by playgroups. But that's not so easy, says Anne Wiltsher
The Government wants 21,000 pre-school playgroup places to be extended to full daycare or wraparound care by 2004. Is this feasible, given the history and culture of the playgroup movement? How popular is it with the paid and unpaid army who run the 14,300 playgroups around Britain?
Quite popular, judging by the number of enquiries to the Pre-School Learning Alliance from playgroups asking how they can extend their hours. The PLA is piloting a Childcare Starter Kit in a joint initiative with the DfEE, which will be distributed in August. 'Many playgroups are wanting to do innovative work,' says PLA worker Natalie Smith, 'and they've latched on to the pilot because they've realised that funding is available.'
A total of 28 playgroups will have taken part in the pilot, divided into two parts, by the time it ends in mid-March. The Kit, aimed at helping playgroups expand to anything beyond the usual two-and-a-half hour session, includes information on funding, drawing up a business plan, finding staff and ensuring that all legal requirements are met. Local playgroup development workers, often managed by the PLA but funded by local early years development and childcare partnerships, are being paid extra to 'mentor' groups through the process. For those unable to take part in the pilot, the PLA are providing informative fact sheets.
Helping the community Christine Hooper, who runs Great Eccleston Pre-school, near Preston in Lancashire, welcomes the chance to 'increase the usefulness of the pre-school to the community' and 'not to go on in the same way forever'. She has been group leader for 15 years and is in charge of five paid staff and two volunteers who work out of a rented Women's Institute hall. The group currently runs a morning playgroup for 20 children and receives the nursery grant.
It has now applied for funding from the New Opportunities Fund (NOF) to provide a breakfast club for two local primary schools and a lunch club for the pre-school children.
Feedback from questionnaires to parents revealed great demand for these places.
Christine says, 'Great Eccleston is 20 minutes away from the bigger towns, and then there's parking. So the breakfast club will help working parents. One school is within walking distance and another is a short bus journey away, so we could easily take the children to school. We might also consider an afternoon playgroup, but the hall is currently used by others at this time.' The Great Eccleston team have become so enthusiastic while taking part in the pilot that they'll apply for funding elsewhere if their application to NOF is unsuccessful. 'It's brought us together as a team,' says Christine Hooper. 'I would say to other playgroups, "Go for it".'
Lenwood PM Pre-school in Newham, London, has successfully applied for 35,796 NOF funding and is in the process of taking on new staff for extended hours. It works in conjunction with Lenwood AM Pre-school, and between them they have rented shared use of a local church hall. The new funding will allow the group to set up a lunch and tea-time/after-school club so that childcare provision runs from 9.15am to 6pm. However, it is not expected that many children will stay for the full hours. The group is to buy a mini-bus to collect children from school. Demand from parents has led to the expansion.
Both Great Eccleston and Lenwood PM playgroups want to extend their hours, not only for the benefit of the community but for their paid staff as well. In the past, playgroup workers have had to do several part-time sessions together with other casual jobs just to make a living. Not surprisingly, if full-time work at nurseries came up, the playgroup staff left. 'We're even seeing interest from prospective staff shifting already,' says Joan Edwards, the group's PLA mentor, 'because they realise there are going to be longer hours.'
Against the grain But how many playgroups want to expand in this way? 'Some playgroups are in wonderful environments but don't have the vision,' says Joan Edwards. 'Others want to expand but don't have the premises. It depends on the committee and the staff, really.'
Eva Lloyd, chief executive of the National Early Years Network, which has 40 per cent of its membership in the voluntary sector, says that there was a considerable increase in full-time provision in the playgroup movement which pre-dates the present Government. She says, 'It goes against the grain for many playgroup workers, because part of the playgroup movement's philosophy is that parents should be involved in their children's early education. It's never been an aim of the playgroup movement to provide full daycare.'
Playgroup management needs to be equipped to deal with full daycare, Eva Lloyd believes. 'It's more work, more responsibility, more administration, bigger budgets.' In addition, she thinks that many playgroup workers and volunteers only want to work part-time themselves.
Tessa Drury, former chair of Playgroup Network, is not alone when she says that she feels the Government is placing too much emphasis on providing childcare for working parents. 'I'd like to see the Government support families where one parent deliberately chooses not to go to work but to stay at home,' she says. 'This could be through the benefit system and through ensuring secure funding for playgroups that wish to remain sessional.' She fears that current policy could result in social pressure on mothers to return to work.
Short of time Hard-pressed playgroup supervisors like Rosemary Phillips, who runs the Hurley Pre-School in Lambeth, London, which is open from 9.30am to 3.30pm, point out that more time and support is needed to guide playgroups' expansion. 'The voluntary management committees of parents change every year,' she says. 'It's difficult for them to understand the jargon, and their time is limited because they're working. Playgroup leaders don't have much time either, because we're running the playgroup.
The DfEE says that extra funding will be available in 2002 for assisting playgroups to expand and that development work on the detail of this initiative will take place over the coming year with appropriate organisations.
In reality, 21,000 places is only a small fraction of the estimated 280,000 places that playgroups provide, so there should be plenty of room - given adequate funding - for playgroups who wish to continue their traditional role.
But why should working and non-working parents always inhabit different worlds? There is a model of nursery provision that manages to satisfy the needs of both. Pauline Hatherill, formerly a PLA organiser, set up a charity and opened First Steps Nursery in a deprived area of Bath in 1996. Although the nursery is open from 8am to 6pm and a few children take full-time places, most parents only want cover for part-time jobs they do in the area. Other, non-working parents use the nursery for sessional care - the mix is about 50-50. First Steps also takes children to and from schools, and there are adult education classes for parents.
'The key to our success is flexibility within a daycare provision,' says Pauline. 'Parents only pay for the hours they use and, as long as they take a minimum of three hours which are the same every week, they can have the hours they want.'
She admits that it is 'a heck of an administrative job'- there are registers every half-hour, and 100 children a week attend the 35-place nursery. But the 23 staff, six of whom are volunteers, mirror the structure of the children's day in the morning and afternoon. There is a key-worker system in operation, and the nursery has been short-listed for an Early Excellence award.
'It's 100 per cent playgroup culture,' says Pauline. 'It has learning through play, parents' involvement in their children's education, and the opportunity for the parents to go on learning.
'The school collection and part-time jobs at the nursery make ideal job opportunities for mothers. They bring the children back from school and have tea at the nursery, then they'll say, "I've always wanted to work with children..."'It's nice for mothers - we have some fathers too - to go back to work gradually,' Pauline says. 'When your child is finally settled and secure, you've got the freedom and flexibility to think of yourself.'