There’s no better test of a society than the way in which it cares
for and supports its children. When research tells us that failure
to support children during their earliest years results in stunted
potential and reduced life chances, early years and child care
become a moral imperative.
Family life is also changing. To balance work, training and family
commitments, many parents require child care across the whole day
and throughout the year.
But obtaining a full day’s care often means moving between nursery,
school, childminder and out-of-school club. Even where provision is
joined up or in adjacent premises, it often stops during the school
holidays, causing headaches for working parents or those studying
However, even with improvements including Sure Start local
programmes, children’s centres and neighbourhood nurseries, child
care is often not flexible enough to meet the realities of the
modern world. The government’s five-year strategy for children and
learners reaffirms our commitment to high-quality child care for
all, giving children a good start in life, and supporting parents
in their choices.
The prime minister spoke at the Labour Party conference about
making life easier for families, with more choice for mums at home
and at work, and an offer of universal, affordable and flexible
child care for the parents of all three to 14 year olds who want
it, from 8am to 6pm.
That’s the vision, and schools are the key to making it a reality.
Schools are a massively underused community resource. Rather than
schools continuing to close down in the middle of the afternoon –
and for weeks on end during the summer – I want them to be a focus
for community activity before and after their traditional
There are “extended schools” already doing great work, hosting a
variety of services. But I’m now asking them to consider providing
the kind of high-quality “wraparound care” that parents are crying
out for: breakfast clubs, after-school clubs, holiday clubs and
We know most schools are well placed to offer some, if not all, of
these services. Of the 1,100 that responded to a recent 4Children
survey, all had some form of out-of-school learning or study
support; 47 per cent had a breakfast club; 34 per cent had an
after-school club; and 39 per cent had holiday play schemes and
This doesn’t mean teachers and teaching assistants will suddenly be
obliged to work extra hours. Schools will often work in partnership
with private providers, the voluntary or community sector, or
parents’ groups. Eighty per cent of the schools reporting an
after-school club to the 4Children survey were using another group
or organisation to provide that service.
Joining the dots in child care provision will enable us to create a
seamless service for parents, who are far more concerned with the
quality and accessibility of services than with who is providing
It will take time before all schools offer extended services, but
the government will be providing practical help, training and
capital funding to help bring the benefits to parents and children
across the country.
Support should be available whenever you need it, and in
the form you need it.
Child care should suit your needs and the needs of the children.
Whether you collect your child at 3pm or at 5pm should be up to
you, and not constrained by your child care provider. Services
built around the needs of the child and their family – that is our
We want to make it easier for parents to stay at home with their
babies. But this would be combined with one-stop, early-learning
child care and family support at children’s centres, schools,
associated nurseries and childminder networks open from 8am to 6pm,
48 weeks a year.
I know that for many parents such wraparound care seems like a
pipedream. I am committed to making it a reality. It will require
the collaboration of groups that are currently working in isolation
or are poorly connected, but I know that whatever the differences
in their approach, their dedication to giving children a sure start
in life and supporting families is not in doubt. And they all agree
on one thing – the need to offer children and parents the very
best. Adrian Voce.
I am not opposed to increasing child care options. Better choices
for working parents are essential to improving the lives of many
families. Neither am I against the idea of making better use of
schools for the benefit of their local communities.
However, there is a danger that the expansion in child care puts
the needs of children second to placing them somewhere safe while
their parents are at work. The language of education secretary
Charles Clarke in introducing the extended schools initiative was
telling. He spoke of a “flexible, personalised package”, as though
he was selling private health insurance or a new financial service.
This was no accident. Child care is becoming an industry and
parents – not children – are the consumers.
A 2002 a study by think-tank Demos conceptualised families as
micro-businesses, which are increasingly outsourcing child care.
But the study recognised the limitations of the business model,
saying “We cannot have a free market in child care because
children’s welfare is at stake. The costs of getting it wrong are
almost incalculable – literally unfulfilled human potential or
psychic and physical damage.”
A key to not getting it wrong is the workforce. In 2000, the
Childcare Commission estimated that 60,000 new playwork jobs would
be needed by 2003. Yet even now there are only 70,000 play and
child care workers, 30,000 of whom are not in front-line roles.
Seventy-one per cent are part-time, 41 per cent work in more than
one setting and 31 per cent are volunteers. The pay rate for a new
playworker is £6 an hour.
With such a stretched and underpaid workforce it is no surprise
that quality assurance targets were so woefully under-reached that
they appear to have been quietly dropped from government
There is growing evidence that the current approach fails to reach
families most in need. Research by independent think-tank the Focus
Institute for Rights and Social Transformation shows that “present
child care services reach only 46 per cent of all children living
in poverty in most wards” and was “targeted at particular
This is especially worrying when you consider that many child care
places have been created at the expense of previously free, open
access play projects.
When the government asked children about their priorities in 2001
“fun places to go and things to do” came top, schools (mainly) last
and child care nowhere. This was barely recognised in the Every
Child Matters green paper, as enjoyment was combined with
achievement in key outcomes – and ignored in the subsequent
strategy. Commentators such as the National Children’s Bureau’s
Paul Ennals asked: “Where is play? We are still waiting for the
radical and ambitious vision which would put children at the heart
of our communities.”
A House of Lords amendment has secured the inclusion of recreation
in the Children Bill but the government’s simultaneous failure to
honour an election promise of a £200m lottery fund for outdoor
play suggests that this was a concession rather than a commitment.
Certainly, spending up to 10 hours a day at school was not what
children – or I dare say their lordships – had in mind.
According to the outgoing director of the Children’s Play Council,
Tim Gill, children’s access to outdoor play opportunities are so
limited that children playing outside are like “a species nearing
extinction”. There is overwhelming evidence that active play is a
solution to a range of urgent problems facing young people, from
health and fitness, emotional and social development to
environmental awareness and social inclusion. Most importantly of
all, it is how they most enjoy their childhood.
If extended schools, especially those in the poorer neighbourhoods,
open up their facilities to local children and not just those
attending, and employ qualified playworkers on a decent wage to run
open access play projects – alongside fee-paying after-school clubs
if necessary – this initiative will be true to the rhetoric and I
will be the first to applaud. If, as seems more likely, we get more
homework clubs alongside “child care at school” (a phrase to strike
horror into most children), then talk about the “new frontier of
the welfare state” will ring hollow indeed.
Adrian Voce takes over as the director of the Children’s Play
Council next month.