Deirdre de Barra finds parents are happy to pay for an after-school scheme which wraps children in comfort and choice
It's 10 minutes after lessons have ended for the day. Normally, excited bubbles of children would be flooding across the playgrounds towards the school gates, shaking the dust of lessons off their feet. Here, however, in the typical primary school in the year 2010, the excitement is staying firmly inside the grounds.
At 6pm parents will come to collect their children, comfortable in the knowledge that they have been somewhere safe, familiar and with friends.
This is the future heralded by the extended schools "wraparound childcare and out-of-school-hours-learning offer" that the Government says is to be available to everyone by 2010.
Radio phone-ins and newspaper debates have zoomed in on the problems: the logistics of organising the care; the question of whether children should be in school from "dawn to dusk"; and the "breakdown of the family" that will supposedly ensue.
But heads such as Jo Grail, of Delaware primary school in Cornwall, believe wraparound care can work, and have set up systems that allow children flexibility and do not put extra burdens on teachers. She says: "We want to offer a time after school where the children can choose to take part in activities or not. All of it is childcare but in some clubs activities such as football are more structured and led by adults, whereas in others the children can play freely or choose to read quietly. What we want to provide is the facilities for all of that. It provides choice for the children and for the parents.'
Delaware employs a childcare manager for 15 hours a week to co-ordinate the out-of-hours provision. Her salary and those of the childcare workers are financed by charges made to parents.
Since Delaware primary started offering extended services, including professional childcare, they have charged for everything offered out-of-school-hours. From 3.15pm, paid professional coaches, trainers and playworkers take the after-school clubs and the childcare club, and volunteers, parents or students support them. The response to charging has been surprising - uptake has increased dramatically. Parents know they are getting professional provision, and are prepared to pay, says Ms Grail.
"All the things that have an educational outcome, that were previously run on a voluntary basis by teachers, such as football, netball and running clubs, we only charge a pound for now. I recently surveyed parents and everyone said that they would happily pay pound;2 if not more. So we're going to put the charge up to pound;1.50 from next September. This is pound;1.50 for children who stay for an after-school club, and that includes their food."
Children in the childcare club pay the standard charge of pound;3 for the first hour (including food) and pound;1.25 for every half an hour after that. Delaware also takes secondary children, who are bused back into the area at 3.30pm; clubs specially for them have included circus skills and netball, and ICT and homework clubs could be next - although they are welcome in all the activities.
"We want to serve a real community, our community, and so if those children want to avail of our facilities they are welcome," says Ms Grail. The biggest impact of extended services was on the cleaning staff, she says.
"They're used to the school being empty at 3.15 and then having two hours to clean it; that's changed now. Not only is it not empty but they've finished cleaning and the kids come back in again - so we're adapting to that and we're going to employ an evening cleaner."
Meanwhile, she says: "There is no commitment on the teachers to be here after 3.15 because we employ professionals to run everything. We did find though that some teachers missed the clubs that they ran, so on Thursday afternoons in curriculum time, we have a self-directed activities afternoon, where the teachers and teaching assistants run a whole range of activities."
But won't children be tired at 3.15 and want to go home? "We've built in a chill-out time from 3.15 to 3.45 where the kids have sandwiches, juice and fruit and a proper break", says Ms Grail. "In the childcare club there's a quiet area where they can sit and play PlayStation, read or watch TV if they want. It's not often they do, though. But it's there if they want to do it.
"We want the parents to have a choice. Quite a lot of the children who now stay to the after-school clubs are not from working families and they don't need childcare. They simply enjoy taking part in the activities that we're offering. At the same time we've got to accept that some parents do need childcare and we want to make it as good as it can possibly be."
Deirdre de Barra is deputy editor with ContinYou, the community learning charity which runs The Extended Schools Support Service (TESSS)