A UK extended childcare scheme for single parents is being piloted in Scotland -but whose needs are being looked after? Douglas Blane reports
What to do with the kids is a major problem for single parents who want to work. Out-of-school care clubs are a popular solution, both with mums and dads, as a safe, stimulating and affordable environment for children, and with the Government, as a route to higher employment and a stronger economy.
One of the latest schemes to be introduced is an Extended Schools Childcare initiative to support lone parents in Fife and Aberdeenshire. A pound;1 million pilot, it was launched in Scotland in July by Euan Robson, deputy minister for education and young people.
"Balancing work with a full family life is a daily juggling act for any parent but is particularly difficult for lone parents. That's why working parents need good access to good quality childcare where their children can flourish," he said.
"This not only helps a child's development - improving their learning and social skills - but provides the support parents need to return to work, helping grow the economy in the process."
But what is good for parents and politicians is not necessarily good for children, and the scheme, which is part of a UK initiative funded by the Department for Work and Pensions and run by local authorities with Jobcentre Plus, has met with some resistance to its move across the border.
The additional funding to Fife and Aberdeenshire is welcome, says Bronwen Cohen, chief executive of Children in Scotland: "But it is a matter of some regret that this comes in the form of an add-on employment-related strategy, rather than an organic development in line with the original vision of integrated community schools - to identify and meet the needs of every child."
The dangers of bringing the economy and working parents to centre stage, at the possible expense of the children, are not lost on Yvonne Crombie, Fife's childcare and early-years manager.
"We will be very carefully monitoring the care of the children and the hours they spend at the clubs," she says.
Opportunities for parents to leave their children in safe hands will increase as Fife's six pilot locations extend their opening hours to support shift-working mums and dads.
"As well as offering more places, the clubs will now open at weekends and stay open longer after school - till 9pm rather than 6pm, as they do now," says Ms Crombie.
For some parents, extended opening hours will be very welcome.
"I will use it if it's offered," says Avis Innes, whose son attends the out-of-school care club in Benarty community centre, Ballingry - one of the six pilot locations.
"I work every Saturday and Sunday so it's awkward at the moment. His Gran is happy to have him any time. But sometimes you feel you are taking advantage."
At six years old, her son Leon is one of the youngest children at the Ballingry club. While tucking into spaghetti hoops and toast at the boys' table, overlooked by a colourful poster of Winnie the Pooh made by the kids themselves, Leon explains that he likes the club and Lego is his favourite activity.
He and his friends have mixed feelings, however, about the prospect of coming here at weekends. The idea appeals to Connor, 7, because he likes building things and would be able to do so for longer. Alistair, 9, has "more important things to do" at the weekend, while Chelsie, 10, does not relish the prospect at all: "I like the club. I enjoy helping the wee ones, which I do at school too - I'm a playground buddy. My Mum has just started going out to work. I miss her and I really wouldn't want to come here at weekends."
Surrounded by scrubland criss-crossed with tall pylons radiating out from the local power station, Ballingry is part of Fife's former industrial heartland, where communities are still struggling to recover from the demise of the coalfields. It is precisely the type of area targeted by Extended Schools Childcare pilots, with their focus on getting lone parents into work in areas of economic deprivation.
But the Government's 18-month timescale could be a challenge, says Yvonne Crombie, given the complexity of the project and its inbuilt marketing, monitoring and matching of increased provision to meet a variety of needs in six different locations. More importantly, so too could sustainability.
"We wouldn't want parents to become dependent on clubs that we couldn't keep open when the Government funding ends," she says. "The aim is to make them financially viable and self-supporting."
Charging parents realistic fees to pay playworkers double time and time-and-a-half, as the local authorities are required to do for evenings and weekends, would, however, price the childcare too high for many of them to use.
"So the way ahead might be for private enterprise to take over at the end of the 18 months, since they are not bound by the same terms and conditions as the local authorities," says Ms Crombie.
It will be important, however, to recruit the right calibre of staff to support the continued growth in childcare provision. In Fife alone, besides a couple of dozen out-of-school care clubs run by parents or private enterprise, 50 clubs have recently been set up by the local authority, financed by the New Opportunities Fund, and a further 40 are on the way.
"By this time next year we will have 800 staff in these clubs," says Ms Crombie.
Provided she can find them. Even now the working week for out-of-school care club staff is demanding and restricting, while totalling a mere 22.5 hours: one hour before school each weekday and three-and-a-half after school.
Fiona Foster, a playworker for two years at the out-of-school care club in Pitcorthie primary, Dunfermline, is not enthusiastic about the prospect of working eight till late for a total of 37.5 hours a week.
"Finishing at six is not too bad, but I'm not sure I'd want to work till nine every night. They have asked me if I'll do it but I'm still thinking.
I'd maybe do it a couple of evenings a week."
Debbie Nisbet already works a longer than average week, combining a special needs teaching assistant post in a mainstream school with her responsibilities as Pitcorthie playleader - which include a great deal of essential paperwork, daily, weekly and monthly: "I might work a couple of evenings until nine - even though that would be a 12-hour day for me. I think the real answer, though, is a rota for the staff."
Fiona Coote has recently moved into childcare from the travel industry. She says: "Working with kids is more satisfying, because they enjoy themselves and they're in a happy environment. I couldn't work till nine though, because I have a two-year-old son myself and I want to see him every day."
As the Pitcorthie staff pack away all the toys and games - a disadvantage of using otherwise ideal school premises - Anne Ogilvie waits for her son.
This morning she dropped him off at the club at eight, as she does every weekday, then travelled from Dunfermline to her work in Linlithgow, before coming home and picking him up again at around six.
"I think that's long enough to leave him here. I know that mums who work shifts might have to leave their kids longer. But personally I would hate to. He's only in Primary 2, and it's a long day already for such a wee lad.
He is quite tired by this time, as you can see."
Young Grant, now standing patiently by her side, rubs his eyes with his little fist.
The Extended Schools Childcare pilots have generated their fair share of criticisms since their April launch. "Smacks of desperation, not inspiration," said the Lib Dems. Childcare charity 4Children has stressed the need for "significant investment in childcare", and highlighted the likely difficulty in staffing the extended hours.
One of the main concerns regards the origins and ownership of the new initiative in the Department for Work and Pensions.
"It is difficult for integrated community schools to realise their full potential when other related policies are determined by Westminster," says Children in Scotland chief executive Bronwen Cohen.
"The integrated schools model puts the child at the centre," points out her colleague, information officer Nicola Pay, while the Extended Schools Childcare pilots "will be assessed on their success in getting lone parents into work".
But Fife education authority does not agree. "We believe it dovetails very nicely with existing provision," says education officer Neil McNeil.
"Our integrated community school staff get together regularly to discuss ways forward for youngsters across Fife. The Extended Schools Childcare pilots is one aspect of that. We all share ideas to give the youngsters of Fife the best provision we can.
"To open schools up from eight in the morning till nine at night and have areas in them with childcare facilities can't be done without a great deal of co-operation and liaison with the schools, and that's what we're building up."
Two of the six locations chosen for the Fife pilots are secondary schools: Buckhaven High, which will provide 24 places on weekdays 8am-6pm for pre-fives, and Woodmill High, which will open its doors at weekends 8am-6pm for five to 14-year-olds," says Mr McNeil.
While there are no immediate plans to roll Extended Schools Childcare out across Scotland, he would welcome this, he says, provided the monitoring and evalution built into the pilots remained. "You do have to make sure, as we're doing in Fife, that the system is not abused by a minority of parents who might leave their children in care for very long periods.
"Here in Fife there are close links between the Extended Schools Childcare pilots and education - and there is an education service agenda. To say the pilots are not part of integrated community schools is just wrong."
As the manager responsible for implementing Extended Schools Childcare in Fife, Yvonne Crombie's own experience in working directly with disadvantaged children have lent her a perspective focused strongly on the needs of the child.
"As far as I'm concerned the children are our clients. Parents are the customers. I share the concerns about children perhaps being in care for longer than is good for them, and we will monitor that very closely.
"But children do benefit from their time with us. It's not just unfocused play -although the importance of play in a child's development should never be underestimated. They benefit in a whole range of ways: in the social skills they learn, the new opportunities they have, the different experiences they gain, the active role they play in decision-making, the sense of responsibility we foster in them.
"There is a lot of work to be done but we are building on excellent, exciting practice. It's a challenge, but we will rise to the challenge."