As the number of working mothers increases, so does the need for safe play and day care for children after school and in holidays. In contemporary Britain children cannot safely be left unsupervised. Cities are dangerous places, rising traffic makes streets unsafe and we are more aware of the risk of abuse.
It is therefore timely that the Thomas Coram Research Unit sponsored, and commendable that the Department of Health funded, Pat Petrie's study of a representative range of the type of provision available for children.
The state's role in this sector is taken by social services departments and local education authorities. These still provide play schemes, though direct provision has decreased in recent years, and tends to be targeted on children in need. However, such schemes do not help the great majority of children, who have no special individual need other than for safe and supervised play out of school. Here the charities and grassroots organisations come into their own, and are Petrie's main object of study.
There is a much greater range of out-of-school provision available than many people realize. Some is expensive, with good equipment and adequate and well trained staff. But much is run on a shoestring, with a mix of parents, volunteers, and staff employed casually.
There is also a great variety of aims shown by the different schemes. Some offer structured programmes, little different from a school, while others offer free play with varying levels of encouragement for specific activities. Staff too vary in their background and training.
And, though the range is great, the quantity available is not. The fragmentation of children's provision reflects the low status traditionally given all forms of child care, particularly for young children. Petrie considers the impact of the regulations and inspections introduced by the Children Act, though her study was done before they had had time to make much impact. In any case, there is no point in requiring high standards unless the money is there to fund them, and local authorities have been directed to regulate with a light hand and rely on parental views rather than impose standards. We must hope that the attention given this important area of provision by the Department of Health will work through in time to a more strategic approach.
Stephen Barber is Controller of Commissioning for Barnet Community Services.