Services on tap around the clock

17th June 2005 at 01:00
'Kelly hours' are on the way, but some schools are already in perfect step with wrap-around care. Jill Parkin reports

Things must certainly be happening in the London borough of Hackney. At the famous Empire, Patti Boulaye is starring in a musical celebration of African womanhood; local estate agents are marking up house prices in somewhere called "sought-after Hackney Village"; and at Millfields community school, my interview is cut short because of yet another ministerial visit to see how they do things here.

Back in December, long before the idea was re-packaged this week as "Kelly hours", Prime Minister Tony Blair chose this school to present his wrap-around childcare promise: subsidised in-school care for primary pupils from 8am to 6pm. By 8am, though, Millfields has already been jumping for an hour and a half.

"By eight o'clock, children might have had a hot breakfast, a keep-fit class and a computer club," says headteacher Mrs Anna Hassan.

"We have all sorts of things going on. We open at 6.30am and finish at 8.30pm, Monday to Saturday."

Brought up in Northern Ireland, married to a Turk, and with Italian parents who ran a catering business, Mrs Hassan and her school have a similar degree of cultural diversity. She is also one of a growing breed of heads who have no complaints about government funding.

"If we want money we get it," she says. "And not just from the Government and Sure Start, but from local businesses and from our own business activities.

"I'm a great fund-raiser. We have just spent pound;90,000 on a state-of-the-art kitchen. Some of that was raised by running the extended day. A school is a business and the community is the customer.

"Education was the poor cousin for too long. Now we have a government that treats it as a priority. The children are the future and we should invest in the future. There's no point in investing in failure."

I'm not sure what that last bit means, but Mrs Hassan is something of an unstoppable force - for all her lapses into "soundbite-speak".

"We apply for everything that's going," she says.

Millfields is a big old Victorian school. Of its 600 or so pupils, fewer than 200 are white and almost two-thirds have a mother tongue which is not English.

As we talk, choruses of "I like coffee, I like tea" come in accented waves from a skipping class in the school hall. But Mrs Hassan is keen to challenge preconceptions.

This isn't just something to help young single mothers to get out of the house in time to do poorly paid work, attend their computer course and get to the one-stop shop before they go to collect their children.

"Hackney is changing," she says. "Society is changing.

"When I came to Millfields 11 years ago, I was amalgamating two failing schools. Now the school is successful, results are good, the governing body is good, and so the middle-classes are coming in. In fact, we are oversubscribed.

"So we have parents who appreciate the early hours because they have a well-paid job in central London - yes, even in the City - and the hours are long.

"They appreciate what we can do for them and their children. In return, they support the school."

New Labour Hackney, then. Perhaps soon the borough will have the same problem as the first-time buyers. Will middle-class parents make a dash for the Kelly hours service and squeeze out the less articulate, those less good at working the school applications system?

Actually, wherever Hackney Village is, it's not around these particular streets, and the school, says Mrs Hassan, serves its local community first.

Gill Bulgan is full of praise for the school. Her daughter, Ayla, 10, has breakfast there - cocoa cereal customised with a microwave warm-up - when she arrives at 7am. She is picked up at 5.50pm by her father, an ambulance driver, three days a week, and by an older sibling on two days.

Her parents pay 50p for breakfast daily and pound;22.75 a week for the after-school service.

Ms Bulgan, a secretary in the Victoria area of central London, says: "The children get continuity, because it's the same staff. It's a very good standard of care.

"Ayla has done dance, Spanish, extra maths. It's improved her social skills no end. She's confident and articulate and really ready for secondary school. It enables me to get to work and do my course at university a couple of nights a week, but the main thing is everything it gives Ayla."

Mrs Hassan says: "The aim is to empower the children and community."

It's the sort of language that can bring out the Victor Meldrew in us. But Ifeoma Udeaja, 38, knows just what it means.

Her daughter Gazie, 10, is a great fan of the Saturday morning classes. Her son, Okezie, 8, uses the school's autism service. After being a school meals supervisor and running the school toy library, she has now been able to return to work as a secretary in the City."As a mother, it feels wonderful to know that my kids are being looked after," she says. "I would have to give up work without it."

Paolo Ramella, 48, of Hackney, whose two sons, Tobi and Olmo, are pupils at the school, says the school childcare is indispensable. Without it, either he or his wife would have to give up work.

"We could not have the two of us in full-time jobs without it," he says.

"It gives us the flexibility to respond to our job pressures when we need to."

The school has 20 after-school activities, including tap-dancing, drama, musical instruments, judo, jazz, lessons in Turkish and Spanish, and soccer coaching run by Arsenal football club. It also has classes for adults, and the computer courses are especially popular.

Long before the Strauss gala waltzed into Hackney, the Empire and other music halls rang to a song that went, "With a ladder and some glasses, you could see the Hackney Marshes, if it wasn't for the houses in between."

One cannot help but wonder whether the view from Hackney to the brave new world isn't a similar illusion, a triumph of hope over deprivation. Still, such cynicism cannot be sustained for long in the presence of Mrs Hassan.

"The activities we do before and after school enrich the children, give them self-esteem," she says. "They really want to come to school, and that's fantastic - for them and their parents. They come up to me and tell me what they're going to do when they're older. And my satisfaction is knowing that with this kind of support they can actually go on and do it."

Welcome to the brave new world of community care and equality for all, whether they clean up in the City or just clean there. "I like coffee, I like tea, I like Rajit and Camilla in with me."

The minister arrives in time for "Oranges and lemons" (visit not open to the Press). The Tube never really made it to this part of east London, so it's a bus back into town, a tour through evolving Hackney.

A three-generation family climbs aboard: grandmother in sari, young mother in jeans and loose head-covering, baby in Gap. Bound for Hackney Village? But both women talk to the baby in Punjabi and, though this is the third generation, English is a second language for most children at Millfields.

It's a reality check after the PR-experience of watching Tony Blair on the telly, fixing himself some toast in the pound;90,000 school kitchen.

Wrap-around childcare may be a step forward for Hackney, and the phrase "Kelly hours" could have been coined by an estate agent just for the Village. But evolution takes a lot longer.

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