Money is not the only issue complicating life for out- of-school provision. Annette Rawstrone reports
It is three years since Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown pledged 300m for starting up more out-of-school clubs. Since then funding has increased, the voluntary and private sectors have sprung into action and out-of-school provision has doubled from 3,000 to 6,000 clubs in Britain.
With generous funding from the New Opportunities Fund, including 13.5m last month to create new places in breakfast and after-school clubs, there is certainly no shortage of money available. But there are still obstacles blocking a secure future. To make out-of-school clubs a success, they need help to secure suitable premises, establish management committees and recruit qualified staff.
Kids' Clubs Network (KCN) wants quality out-of-school provision to become a part of life, with a club in every area by 2010. Director Anne Longfield estimates that they are almost two-thirds of the way to reaching the target, but more money is needed. It often takes clubs several years before they get known in the area and run on full capacity. The start-up grant, other than in severely disadvantaged areas, only lasts for the first year, leaving many clubs to struggle and sometimes close.
'Out-of-school clubs need the commitment of local authorities to provide ongoing support, especially in areas of disadvantage,' Anne Longfield says.
'Some clubs rely on parents' fees alone - probably a third of clubs are like that - a third are nearly there and just need a little help, but the remaining third are in poor areas and additional funding is needed both for start-up grants and on an ongoing basis. Out-of-school clubs will remain an area of disadvantage until we get an ongoing slice of the funding and until out-of-school care becomes a priority.'
Anne Kearsley, Leeds Early Years Development and Childcare Partnership (EYDCP) co-ordinator, says if parents' perceptions changed they would be prepared to pay for a quality service. 'We need to introduce a better fee-paying structure, and there needs to be a shift in the culture of childcare. Parents need to realise it is not always going to be cheap - why should it be?'
Zoe Groves, who runs Deepdale Out-of-School Club in Boston Spa, near Leeds, says the Working Families Tax Credit has helped clubs move toward charging realistic fees. She has also found that families have joined the club who would not previously have been able to. A registration fee has been introduced at Horace's After-School Club, based at Horrington Primary School in Somerset, to help maintain financial viability. Parents pay a 5 registration fee per term on top of the 2 per hour fee.
A substantial increase in fees has occurred at Craigmillar Childcare Services' three out-of-school clubs in Edinburgh. 'We took a bold step,' says project co-ordinator George Burgoyne. 'Our childcare used to be at a cost of 50p per session and was very heavily subsidised. We have now completely changed the fee structure by looking at parents' ability to pay.
'Parents fill in a substantial application form and the contribution, from 11 up to 40 per week, is set on their level of income, which is backed up by wage slips. There was some resistance, but people have generally accepted it.' As a result the projects have benefited, including repairs to buildings and a new minibus.
Attracting the right staff is also often difficult and can slow down the growth of provision. 'We have had a huge increase in the number of places (from six clubs in 1994 to 117) in Leeds, but we have not necessarily got the numbers of staff to support them,' says Anne Kearsley. 'The wages are low and there is little job security.'
Horrington Primary School's after-school club has been plagued with recruitment problems in the three years it has been open. 'We are constantly being knocked back to square one because it is very difficult to maintain staff,' says headteacher Helen Gregory. 'I think the disadvantage we suffer is because it is a rural school. Recruitment and keeping staff is a problem because they have to be able to drive. It can also be difficult to give up three-to-six o'clock in the evening when they have a family.'
Craigmillar Childcare Services has secured 300,000 NOF funding to create ten new projects in Edinburgh but Mr Burgoyne also foresees recruitment difficulties. 'We will get staff, but it is not going to be easy,' he says. 'We believe that we do pay good rates, offer good conditions and operate individual learning plans to encourage training. Unfortunately for other local projects, we will attract staff from them who want to develop.'
To ensure quality, KCN's Anne Longfield also wants a new qualification established. 'The majority of staff have got early years qualifications and a few undertake playwork training. But the training needed for out-of-school clubs is not quite playwork - which doesn't include providing children with meals, dealing with parents or looking after children on a continuous basis - so a qualification does not exist for the staff,' she explains. 'To be registered, staff need to have a qualification of some sort, but we need to get one that spans playwork and childcare. It is perfectly possible.'
Another obstacle is where to hold the clubs. Southampton EYDCP childcare co-ordinator Mandy James says, 'There is a lack of premises because of the odd times needed. In school halls and community centres there can be a tension between user groups, because the after-school club sessions eat into the evening slots and the club may be finishing as an aerobics class wants to get in.'
This has been a stumbling block for Happy Hours, based at Beeston Primary School, Leeds. 'Being in the school is just not suitable,' says joint owner Pauline Hodgson. 'We are based in the school hall and with a small number of children that is fine but, especially at this time of year, when there are concerts and plays the hall is needed, so we are given other areas. As numbers have grown the places we can go have become limited.
Another problem is that if we do artwork we are not able to display it, and there is nowhere to put our notices.' Happy Hours has overcome this issue by obtaining New Opportunities Fund money for a Portakabin that will be based in the school grounds.
Shirley Norrie, Scottish Out-of-School Care Network national information officer, wants to see school rent charges reduced. 'We argue that the local authority has a role to play in providing free or low lets,' she says. 'West Lothian Out-of- School Network had to stand up against council proposals to bring in high letting charges. These would have closed 11 out of 12 groups. But because the local network spoke out, the council did a U-turn.'
Ms Norrie also raises the issue of managing the provision. 'Most out-of-school clubs are set up by groups of parents and then run by voluntary management committees who employ staff. That means ordinary people have to take time from their work and families and commit themselves to running a childcare service with many responsibilities and keeping up with changing employment legislation.'
Bradford EYDCP encountered this problem. 'Our target is to develop 3,090 places over the next three years,' says childcare co-ordinator Daphne Addison. 'Even with the expansion of existing provision, to meet this target we would need to develop and support more than 150 voluntary management committees.
This will be an extremely difficult task. Well-run and effective voluntary management committees require people with confidence, skills, time and energy. Increasing demands of employment and longer working hours means parents have less time to commit to this kind of community activity. Voluntary management committees, especially in disadvantaged communtities, where childcare development is targeted, can take many months to reach the stage where they are ready to make a NOF bid.'
And, not to be forgotten in the rigmarole of securing funding, finding premises, and attracting quality staff and dedicated volunteers, are the children. 'For an out-of-school club to succeed there also needs to be a commitment to consulting with children,' says Anne Kearsley. 'It has to be remembered that this isn't pre-school provision and the children are not being taken along in pushchairs. They won't go if they don't want to.'
Starting an out-of-school club
- For information on funding contact your local childcare partnership, your local authority, or the New Opportunities Fund, Heron House, 322 High Holborn, London WC1V 7PW (England enquiries, 0845 000 0121; Scotland 0845 000 0123; Wales 0845 000 0122; Northern Ireland 0845 000 0124).
- For a start-up guide and advice on playworkers courses, contact Kids' Club Network, Bellerive House, 3 Muirfield Crescent, London E14 9SZ (0207 512 2112) or Scottish Out-of-School Care Network, Floor 6, Fleming House, 134 Renfrew Street, Glasgow G3 6ST (0141 331 1301).