After-school clubs have become a lifeline for those parents and carers who face the perpetual conflict of school and work timetables, writes Roger Frost.
However it happened, the 700-hour mismatch between the school year and the business year is a perpetual headache for parents. For them, and other carers, the school day is no more in tune with life on this planet than a day on Venus. The worry of picking up the kids from school, and filling the time warp is much talked about, thought about, and only a little done about, for those who have to work or study.
One solution is a "kids' club", of which there are now 3,000 or so scattered across the nation - that's about one for every seven primary schools.
Penwortham After School Care is one of these. Like half of the "clubs", it happens on school premises and shares hut, hall, playground, classroom and storage space with Penwor-tham Primary in the London borough of Wandsworth.
While collaboration between club and school is a feature they are most proud of, After School Care is run and staffed by Wandsworth Play Association, an outside charity. It takes 40 children aged from 3 to 11, at a cost to parents of Pounds 14 per week, a price subsidised by the local authority, training and enterprise council and other grants.
As the 3.30 afternoon bell goes, children, including those from schools surrounding this large primary, are escorted to the dining room. They meet their peers, munch on a burger and move on to something that takes their fancy.
Today football has taken most of the group, others chat in the playground, smaller ones pop in to the hall, where tables offer colouring in, painting, board games and French knitting. A screened-off corner has bean bags for snoozing on. No one is using this just now, although there is one child in the dressing-up area, donning a Rastafarian woolly hat and claiming to be Michael Jackson.
Kids' Club Network, a charity which encourages and supports the setting up of such facilities, sees its role as more than just helping parents. It estimates that one in five primary children may be "latchkey kids" - that's 800,000 children between five and 10 who are left to their own devices out of school. The charity points out the benefits: children develop social skills, are better behaved and more receptive to learning in school time.
The atmosphere at Penwortham is happy and well-mannered. When asked if they'd sooner be at home, they wince and claim they value the company of friends more than the television. And while the range of activities here appears random, a wall chart shows a day-by-day changing programme. Since I'm more used to structured school life, co-ordinator Maureen Ebank has to remind me that this is "after school".
A look at clubs nationally perms every possible arrangement on how they operate and relate with schools. For example, Cross Hall kids' club in St Neot's in Cambridgeshire is directly managed by a grant-maintained school. There's daily liaison with the school, regular staff meetings, as well as a half-termly newsletter to parents who pay around Pounds 1.60 per hour to send their children there.
As popular here as anywhere are football, rounders and parachute games. They use two classrooms for painting, board games, modelling, play and tie-dying activities. During the holidays there are visits from the fire service and the police, who do sessions on bicycle safety and security. Add to this juggling days, and play-in-a-day drama workshops and you've got some quality care for around Pounds 10 a day.
Another, the Time Out Club in Gateshead, is an out-of-school kids' club set up by a group of parents. It took 18 months of planning and regulation checking before the club eventually found a home in a community centre. Now, four years on, the parent-friendly approach is evident when kids can be left at their morning breakfast club and a minibus takes them to school.
Like many others, their club runs in the holidays, although having a "parent focus" means that they have to cater for schools with different holiday dates. Fees are Pounds 5.50 in term time, Pounds 11 in the holidays and cover only a third of their costs. The rest, like the cost of a minibus, comes from charities and government grants. The fact that they've raised Pounds 300, 000 in the last four years is probably a record, as well as a measure of deserved praise.
It's not just parents and primaries that set up clubs - some secondary schools have hosted clubs for their feeder schools. The Kids' Club Network helps the setting up process. This has several publications which explain the case for a club and how to create what is ultimately a business that may not show a profit.
Its Ready, Steady, Go! pack (Pounds 10) looks at market research, staffing and legal issues. It is for those who are already well motivated and not for anyone squeamish about business. There are clues to gaining funding - such as a slice of Pounds 12.5 million the Government has put into the training and enterprise councils for such care, and schools will be interested in the Out of School - In School booklet which puts the case for a kids' club well.
It also has information for established clubs which encourages them to sharpen their practice by going through a quality assurance scheme. Penwortham has been through this and has earned a hard-to-come-by "very good" rating.
But never mind the quality for the moment, feel the statistics: according to Kids' Club Network, two-thirds of mothers with five to nine-year-olds are at work, and the labour force is expected to grow by 1.6 million, nearly all women, in the next 10 years.
Schools should start by responding positively to requests for a kid's club. When they meet needs with ideas instead of obstacles, parents will discover that they're not on another planet after all.
Kids' Club Network is a charity which promotes and supports school-age child care. It deals with all aspects of out-of-school care, from enquiries to providing advice on setting up and running a kids' club. KCN, Bellerive House, 3 Muirfield Crescent, London E14 9SZ. Tel: 0171 512 2112. Another group, Education Extra, promotes school-based, out-of-hours activities for children. Education Extra, 18 Victoria Park Square, London E2 9PF. Tel: 0181 980 6263