Walk down Kingsland Road in Hackney, east London, past the vibrant pavement displays of peppers and aubergines, past the late-opening Turkish pastry shops and the out-sized police station, past the marble-clad mosque and the community centre with smashed windows, and you come, at last, to Kingsland School.
At this 900-pupil comprehensive, they are conducting an experiment. Researchers from the Institute of Education at London University - five miles west but a world away - devised a prototype for a new form of kids'club. It should be democratic, they said, with children involved in both planning and day-to-day running. It should cross the primarysecondary divide and have tentacles reaching out to a network of local services. It should be open when children want it, and help compensate for social disadvantage and emotional problems. Now a five-strong team is putting that vision into practice at this East End school.
The result is A Space - with the accent on the A. On a rainy Tuesday evening the principles behind the project are less evident than the children themselves - buying toast, chasing round the hall, dumping huge rucksacks and puffa jackets in front of the art display and signing up for their activity of choice. A Space opens its doors at 3.45 and soon children are pouring in, threatening to overwhelm the register-taker.
One of the differences between this and an ordinary after-school club quickly becomes apparent. There are children ranging from diminutive Year 4s to rangy Year9s. The club is open to olderchildren from two local primary schools as well as younger children from Kingsland itself, span-ning that Cinderella age range of eight to 14, in which children often seem neglected - and breaking the apartheid between primary and secondary children.
Younger children come (with escorts) from nearby feeder primaries, Shacklewell and Colvestone. They appear unintimidated by "big school", with pairs of girls sitting on radiators and others rummaging in cupboards for board games or lining up at the counter for juice and crisps. Sharlene, now in Year 7 at Kingsland, is getting on better than she anticipated. "There were lots of rumours," she says. "Like that when it was your birthday, they'd flush your head down the toilet." One of the functions of A Space is to dispel this kind of fear.
The club, which has been funded by Sainbury Family Charitable Trusts, began just over a year ago as a lunchtime drop-in offering Scrabble, sports and someone to talk to. It now opens at lunchtime (for Kingsland pupils only), after-school until 6.15, and for day trips and workshops during half-terms and holidays.
A Space aims to reach some of the most deprived children. With over 60 per cent of Kingsland pupils entitled to free school meals, and a high proportion of refugees, transient families and children with English as a second language, the need is there for facilities, space and attention. "The home environment and the pressurised school environment are more conducive to having adults treat children in short, sharp terms," says A Space director Keith Jennings."There's less time for focusing on children's needs." The project has its own dedicated space in school: a large hall and two smaller rooms. It also has access to the sports halls, library and music room. Relations with the school are good. "We've got the facilities, so let's use them," says deputy head Martin Pedelty. "The community needs it. There's so little going on in the early evening for children, and most are on the streets or worse."
Activities include drama, music, crafts, indoor and outdoor sports and "open" art. There's a homework club two evenings a week in the library, and psychotherapist Lyn French is on hand to counsel children through the "Listening Ear" service, or put them in touch with peer counsellors. The varied skills of five full-time staff are supplemented by sessional workers, and A Space is in touch with many statutory and voluntary agencies in the borough and beyond.
Suzanne Hood of the Institute of Education believes high attendance is a testament to the club's success. The project takes up to 50 children at each session, and SainsburyOs funding means that although annual running costs are 100,000-plus, costs to children are pegged at a modest 20p per session. A Space is giving children what they want. A series of meetings was held with children, parents and staff at Kingsland and surrounding primaries. Questionnaires were later sent out by the institute team. Keith Jenning says: "We're asking something quite sophisticated of them, which is to direct concepts and feel that A Space is their space. We really believe in user-led services."
Rules are minimal. Children register their presence and put their names down for what they want to do. "Ground rules" are then worked out within each workshop. Children call all workers by their first names, and although A Space is physically set within Kingsland School, they have a lot more latitude. Martin Pedelty believes some of the A Space philosophy could usefully filter into the school itself. "If you empower children to take responsibility for their own lives, possibly you build a stronger society than we have now,O he says.
Year 7 pupils find the club particularly useful, says home-school link worker Sarah Ferner. "Often they need help with study skills, and A Space is like an orderly landmark in their lives. Some of our children have quite chaotic home lives." One boy - from a family of five living in a one-bedroom flat - locks himself in the bathroom to do homework at home.
The numbers of kids' clubs is set to explode over the next few years. The Government announced plans in November for 6,000 new homework and study support centres in schools, targeted at children of seven and over. "There's now a recognition that there's a real need out there. But there are still very few examples for 8 to 14-year-olds which combine childcare and activities," says Anne Longfield, director of Kids Club Network.
Suzanne Hood believes the growth in out-of-school provision must be "guided by a set of values" rather than a rush to meet the childcare needs of working parents. The chief principles, she suggests, should be that children's views are heeded, that the clubs should be non-stigmatising for those who attend them, and that work with children aged 8-14 can ease transition between primary and secondary school.
Although A Space's main function is to promote children's recreation, education, health and well-being, in doing that it does also assist working parents. Gulseven Ismail, 32, works for Hackney Council, and her 10-year-old daughter Derya has attended A Space up to three evenings each week since it opened last January. "She used to be picked up by her granny but this gives her something different to do," she says. "There's education, computers, drama and she loves going there."