Like so many pressure groups, the Scottish Out of School Care Network has wasted no time in chapping on the doors of our new Government. Its ambitions are bold: "We want an out-of-school place for every child who needs one. " There's a long path to travel, for today only two in every 100 children have the benefit of that kind of quality care in Scotland.
"We've told the Scottish Office we want to work with them to create and develop an infrastructure for all the clubs in Scotland," says national development officer, Irene Audain. "Our message is: we are the experts - use us and work with us. We are looking for new money to sustain existing services and develop new ones. We want them to invest in training and qualifications on a large scale."
There are now more than 450 out-of-school clubs in Scotland, providing about 11,000 places for children. More than a dozen local networks are in place, from the Highlands and Islands to the Borders. The clubs aim to create safe and stimulating places for children to play and be creative outside normal school hours - usually until parents return from work or study, though some clubs also run on in-service days and during the holidays. Most use school premises, church halls or community centres. Some are strikingly different: 50 per cent of the staff of Pollokshields, for example, are bilingual; 50 per cent of its family users are now Muslim.
The benefits for children, parents and communities are numerous, yet prejudice and contradictory thinking still abound about their very existence: they are warehouses for latch-key kids; a boon for selfish mothers who should be at home; a noisy nuisance to unsympathetic headteachers in whose buildings they nest; an indulgent luxury. The clubs have been a classic prey to politicians' doublethink about working mothers. The network staggered along on urban aid grants, occasional council grants or parents' own efforts until the last Government introduced the Out of School Childcare Initiative, which ran from l993 and l996.
Scotland's share of the UK-wide Pounds 45-million cash injection, clearly targeted as an economic investment, was to be delivered through local enterprise companies, which were encouraged to develop partnerships with local councils and voluntary organisations. That was welcome, but while some LECs - for instance, in the Borders - were very active and committed, others did almost nothing, and lacked the skills or interest to deliver.
Equally welcome, especially given the ending of Scottish Office and Scottish Enterprise funding, was National Lottery funding for the network in l996, which brought more than Pounds 330,000 over three years. But Irene Audain says the greatest long-term need is for "consistent, stable funding for clubs, not short-term injections but long-term sustainability. We still find the ridiculous situation of a club folding at one end of the street, and opening at the other.
"Local authorities have been through a difficult transition period and many have had to impose severe cuts on the budgets of existing out-of-school services. Many clubs face great uncertainty about their future."
Yet the clubs benefit many different groups. Children get a safe, stimulating environment, parents gain peace of mind and the chance to improve their income for their families, and schools find a club greatly increases their attractiveness. The economy gains from releasing many more people into the labour market, employers find that absenteeism declines and staff actually perform their jobs better.
Yet the problems go deeper than insecure funding. The whole structure and philosophy of the clubs is based upon parents running them through voluntary management committees. This is a fine idea in theory, but even with support and advice from the network and local authority officials, it is difficult to find enough people who are willing to learn the skills and find the time to meet all the quality standards. They are forced to run a professional service as part-time amateurs. This is a contradiction the playgroup movement has long known only too well, and it typifies the British approach to childcare.
So in February the network launched "Scotland's Charter for Out of School Care", backed by the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities as well as many other agencies. Irene Audain says: "Every new MP in Scotland has already been sent a copy. When she was Shadow Minister for Education, Helen Liddell signed the charter, so, of course, we hope the new ministers will endorse this commitment."
The charter urges the Scottish Office to promote a national partnership strategy, and calls for incentives, such as childcare subsidies, for low-income families and tax-free incentives for employers. It wants local authorities to make out-of-school care a vital part of their urban and rural regeneration plans, support local communities by free school lets and access to training, and "lead by example as employers" by enabling all staff who need places to take them up.
The charter calls on LECs to work in partnership on funding packages, provide childcare places for parents on training courses, lead by example through sponsoring staff places, and invest in training qualifications. It asks parents to participate in the clubs' running and activities, and respects children, too; they should be involved in the daily programme and help in drawing up the rules, it says. Schools should see out-of-school care as something that promotes the education and well-being of children.
"There are many other issues to be resolved, too," says Irene Audain. "Funding for qualifications and training links into important areas such as child protection. The consultation paper after the Cullen inquiry didn't go far enough in protecting children; we need more than voluntary accreditation, and the burden of costs in checking people's suitability to work with children cannot just fall on the voluntary sector."
The network also hopes for speedy consultation by the Government on its manifesto commitment to set up homework clubs, using a slice of lottery funding. Says Irene Audain: "I suspect there may be some confusion here. I think they also have out-of-school care in mind. We want to sort this out. In Scotland, we already have a policy for homework assistance.
"We expect money will be delivered to set up a network of out-of-school clubs, and that we'll be consulted in delivering this. We also expect the system will be delivered differently in Scotland. After all, we have our own education and legal systems and our own culture; we have commitment to the charter already from so many agencies in Scotland."
OF CONSTITUTIONS AND FITTED CUPBOARDS
Sometimes journalists find the subjects they write about prove very "close to home". Throughout the past year, the committee of my own daughter's after-school club in Edinburgh has been holding fortnightly meetings in a marathon quest to ensure its survival.
My daughter's after-school club was popular and much-needed. But to gain official registration, there was a mountain of work to be done. Our management committee had shrunk to two, we had no written policies, the constitution had to be redrafted for charitable status, the facilities, security, heating and storage space were a headache, and the playleader was struggling, on her own, to recruit, and keep, new staff.
We had to start again from scratch, writing policies on everything from disciplinary procedures to admissions policy, interviewing job applicants, getting cupboards built, finding the best deal for a mobile phone, building trust and involvement with project staff, improving relations with the school, and filling in forms which demanded our addresses for the past two decades in the interests of child protection.
It was a salutary experience for everyone involved, for at least two reasons. Many people dismiss this kind of work as the more trivial and unexciting end of volunteering, not to mention "women's work" (as indeed it proved to be - where were the fathers?). But for working parents and their children, fighting for the survival of after-school care has been central, the threat to it a huge anxiety.
Secondly, the drawbacks of a system that demands volunteers do almost all the work in such a crucial area of childcare have been brought home to us all. There's something topsy-turvy about this cosy ideology when the very parents who most rely on good quality, low-cost, after-school care have the least time and resources available to run it. For working parents, single mothers, returners to work, people struggling with big families on low incomes, even arranging babysitting for the meetings is often a struggle.
As we approach the annual general meeting and, we hope, the official seal of approval, we've learned a great deal. We have made new friends and had support from council officials in Edinburgh. I, for one, know a lot more than I used to about constitutions and fitted cupboards. We don't regret any of it, but we have also spent many evenings away from children we already see too little.
Surely the quality of care for our children should not depend so much on the toil of those who are already trapped in working patterns which take so little account of families' needs, where school hours and holidays are still rooted in l950s' notions of the mother constantly on hand at home?