Finding good affordable after-school child care has never been a particularly easy task for parents whether working or unemployed.
For despite two major Government initiatives in recent years making Pounds 50 million available through training and enterprise councils (TECs) to establish 50,000 new after-school child-care places demand still exceeds supply.
But if proposals by a leading child-care charity are adopted by all political parties in the run-up to the general election, the end of the millennium will see 5,000 affordable high-quality play-care clubs across the country.
The Kids' Clubs Network's (KCN) report, "The next step for school-age children", highlights the need for improved after-school care and includes its 10-point plan to establish a national network of clubs. The organisation works with local and national partners to support the rapid expansion of the sector, establish National Vocational Qualification training for play-care workers and a quality assurance scheme.
Central to its plans is more Government funding backed by local partnerships involving parents, local authorities, TECs, schools, employers and other agencies.
Anne Longfield, the organisation's director, said KCN had been lobbying all the political parties for a commitment to improved access to after-school care. The network is holding a National Kids' Clubs Day at the House of Commons next Wednesday.
She said: "The two recent initiatives have worked incredibly well. The number of kids' clubs in the UK has more than doubled in the past year and is set to grow to more than 3,000 by 1996, but current Government funding may end next April.
"At the same time 90 per cent of TECs operating after-school care say there is still excess demand and they can either continue at their current level for three years or set up further support if increased funding were available. What we would like to see is additional Government funding into local partnerships to help them support out-of-school care."
Already schools play a large part in caring for children after 3.30pm - 35 per cent of the current provision is in schools and the figure is growing. Currently the bulk of the cost of after-school child care is borne by parents - discriminating against unemployed andor single parents.
The extent of the problem was revealed in a Department of Social Security survey in 1991 which showed 55 per cent of lone mothers - 90 per cent of single parents are female - wanted to return to work but were discouraged by the lack of affordable child-care.
"We are trying to to redress the balance so there will be more help for parents on lower incomes," Mrs Longfield said. "We are, for example, trying to encourage local authorities to use their budget for children in need on these clubs.
"We have been given a short, sharp injection of cash in the past three years but clubs in socially disadvantaged areas have not been able to flourish as they should."
However, if the political parties adopt KCN's suggestions the organisation believes that for an annual investment of Pounds 10 million every community could have a kids' club with relatively low levels of subsidy.
Should they need further proof of the benefits of good affordable after-school child-care a visit to the local authority-funded Bradmore Kids Workshop in the London borough of Hammersmith and Fulham is recommended.
The purpose-built centre has places for 60 children aged five to 14 from 3.30pm until 7pm on weekdays at a cost of 50p a session, and 9am until 4.30pm at a daily charge of Pounds 2 during school holidays. It has a long waiting list and turnover is low.
The centre costs the authority Pounds 6,000 a year to run - on top of staff salaries - but despite the demand for places it faces an uncertain future because of Whitehall's relentless squeeze on local authority spending.
"The average wait for a place is one year. This year we managed to take on an extra six children but it is very difficult," said centre manager Lauren See.
It is easy to see why it is so popular. Staff at the centre, which is a member of the Kids' Clubs Network, work hard to make it warm and welcoming.
Within minutes of the children's arrival the building was filled with activity and excited chatter. They cast off their school uniforms, donned swimming costumes, and gathered around a large inflatable paddling pool in the forecourt. At the same time a group of boys were playing indoor football in the hall and several small girls were sprawled over tables in the reception area building Duplo dolls' houses.
Despite its relaxed atmosphere the staff plan each day so the children are constantly stimulated. They draw up a weekly timetable of activities which may include cooking, jewellery-making, trips to the cinema, canoeing, abseiling, netball, badminton and batik, so that each session offers something for every child.
"We aim to provide a stimulating, caring environment which is supportive of children and where parents know they are safe," Lauren See explained. "We try to give our children a lot of opportunities here which they may not get at school or at home."
Edited by Diane Hofkins.