Education or glorified childcare? Anne McHardy reports on Labour's slew of initiatives involving children
I feel very strongly that we should not be providing soup kitchens for children. If they are being neglected, then we should sort out the problems." So says Alex Ashcroft, National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children co-ordinator and adviser to the Hayle Family Support Project, which provides after-school and holiday clubs at Hayle, in Cornwall.
John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads' Association, building on his experience as a head in Durham, gives the opposite view:
"Some of the kids would start to look grey around the gills at 10 in the morning and I'd think, if only I could spend the school's money on feeding them I'd do a lot for their education."
Between those two viewpoints lies the truth about the plethora of social, childcare and educational initiatives undertaken by Labour since it came to power.
Three years into the new millennium, if the initiatives deliver as promised, Labour intends to be running a country of well-fed, bright-eyed and eager learners.
This vision is what has so many agencies almost crossing their fingers. The Kids' Club Network, with 17 years of creating after-school clubs behind it, is enthusiastic, seeing a national childcare revolution under way. Director Anne Longfield sees start-up funds creating an infrastructure of support for diverse needs.
John Dunford and Alex Ashcroft are both more cautious, but welcomed the promised expansion as addressing long-identified needs.
There were, Mr Dunford said, issues about payment for teachers, but voluntary overtime was a personal matter. Payment for homework clubs was problematic when other out-of-hours work, such as sport, remained voluntary.
The common theme running through all Labour's schemes is that partnerships between schools, community organisations, local authorities, businesses, the Government and parents can deliver an integrated system.
This would offer out-of-school childcare, in-school classes, and after-school education extension. Millions in funding is promised, including lottery cash.
The aim is to allow more parents, particularly single mothers, to return to work encouraged by tax incentives, and secure in the knowledge that their children are well cared-for.
Children would be encouraged to learn through clubs, some dealing with curriculum subjects, others more creative. Standards for the brightest would be raised through masterclasses and centres of excellence, bringing in members of the community as mentors, and improving teacher and careworker training.
Most clubs are intended to be school-based, using voluntary and careworkers as well as teachers. There is a planned five-fold expansion in numbers of careworkers.
To read policy documents describing the National Childcare Strategy and those relating to education standards and Excellence in Cities is to see just how broad a task the Government has set itself.
It is not always clear whether the central aim is childcare, keeping juvenile criminals off the streets, or, as Prime Minister Tony Blair declares, education.
The childcare strategy is designed to increase services for children from three to 16. The minister for childcare, Margaret Hodge, a veteran of tackling London deprivation, described it as intended to help "youngsters to develop and bring peace of mind to their mums and dads".
The aim is to increase childcare places from 200,000 last year toa million by 2003, to increase projects from 4,000 to 24,000, workers from 15,000 to 75,000, employers offering childcare from 3 to 35 per cent, and the number of schools with clubs from 2,000 to 15,000.
Excellence in Cities, launched last month by Mr Blair and the Education Secretary, David Blunkett, at the same time is promising more after-school, weekend and summer schools, and master-classes.
Beacon schools' facilities would be used to improve not just general standards, but to deliver more challenging education to the brightest.
Most of the initiatives duplicate schemes developed over many years by individual schools, community groups and networks.
Langdon Park, a comprehensive serving a deprived area of Poplar, in east London, has run homework clubs for seven years and a breakfast club for two.
The original homework club was set up by teacher Irene Bowthorpe, who is now paid as the full-time clubs' co-ordinator. The school has charity funding, plus cash from Tower Hamlets council and the lottery: deputy head, Chris Collins, masterminds the search for funds.
All clubs have teachers available, and all attending pupils are monitored for effects on academic achievement. Results have gradually improved.
"The thing is, though, with the population we serve, some of our children are just so glad to get a grade. It is no good everyone dreaming of an A-C," said Ms Bowthorpe.
The New Policy Institute this month publishes an assessment of breakfast clubs' effects on health and learning.
Researcher Nick Donovan said breakfast is vital if pupils are to concentrate. Its provision through clubs may not be the panacea, but it is a solution for many.
* 90,000 children attend school clubs in England and Wales.
* In July 1998, there were 4,000* clubs.
* Of these, 71 per cent are open after school, 26 before school, 58 per cent are open at half term and 72 per cent are open during the summer holidays.
* Almost half of all "out of school" care is provided on school premises.
* Voluntary groups and registered charities are the most common provider, running 42 per cent of clubs.
* Schools are the main provider of breakfast clubs.
* Employers and the business sector run the most clubs during summer holidays and half term breaks.
* Two-thirds of clubs have received start-up funds under Labour's Childcare Initiative.
* Two-thirds of clubs are in cities, but new ones are opening at a faster rate in rural areas.
* 10,000 children are currently on waiting-lists for childcare places.
* In the year to July 1 the number of clubs increased by 14 per cent, with summer holiday provision up 25 per cent.
*Latest figures show this figure has risen to 4,400.
Source: The Childcare Revolution: facts and figures for 1998, published by Brunel University and Kids' Clubs Network