Reach out to extended families

17th June 2005 at 01:00
In 1870, the Government passed a law to bring to poor children benefits previously available only to the middle and upper classes: universal elementary education. The latest plans for extended schools is an attempt to do the same for childcare. Youngsters from council estates are to have access to dance classes, tennis and computers just like their better-off peers. At the same time, middle class parents will have a convenient one-stop shop for all these activities.

Deprived children and middle-class parents are the policy's target groups.

So it raises uncomfortable questions. Do children from very different backgrounds need the same type of provision? And how can we be sure that the children who need this "wraparound" care most will get it? If, for example, a child has a difficult home life, with parents who may be alcoholic, ill, or criminal, then school can be a haven. It is a place where there is order and nurturing, where they are free of adult responsibilities, where they have space to be themselves. For such children, more hours in school, with free time, outdoor activities, a chance to broaden their horizons, must be beneficial. But how many will still have to go straight home at three, to mind the baby and make the dinner? Evidence from Sure Start suggests that many still will. Kelly Hours could help give these children the childhoods they deserve. But it will take hard work and hard cash.

Other children have loving parents at home, but home is a run-down estate where broken hypodermic needles litter the concrete. These children need a place to play. Schools could provide that.

Middle class children have different needs. For them a constant round of organised activities five days a week will mean the loss of important childhood experiences. Some would benefit from having more, not less, time at home, to mooch, to be private, to play with friends away from school bullies or academic rivals. The Government means well but it remains to be seen if its dawn to dusk schools can meet the diverse needs of children.

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