Sunday 21 December 2014

All smiles - at the after-school club

It's the new answer for our go-go-go families

Published 23/04/2008 | 00:00

Twins Michael and Padraic Crawford (8) enjoy Park Academy's after-school care
Twins Michael and Padraic Crawford (8) enjoy Park Academy's after-school care

It is a sign of the changing times. The only surprise is that it did not happen sooner. Ireland's first purpose-built after-school club recently opened in Booterstown, Co Dublin

With both parents working full-time in a growing number of households, the issue of what happens to the children after school has become pressing.

After-school care is a largely unregulated form of childcare that is growing in importance in Ireland. A generation cared for in creches now desperately needs care in the afternoon period before their parents return from work.

Most children at primary level with parents working are currently cared for on an informal basis by grandparents, other relatives, or friends.

More formal after-school care is generally based in creches or nurseries, which are not always suitable for older children.

"The problem with using creches as after-school facilities is that they are not designed for older children,'' says childcare consultant Steve Goode. "The needs of 11- or 12-year-olds are very different to four or five-year-olds. The staff may not always be suitably trained to deal with them.''

Realising that there is a huge demand for specialised after-school care, the Park Academy Childcare Group has set up the first purpose-built facility at Booterstown.

The stand-alone club caters for school-going children up to sixth class in primary school.

Mary McGibney, who set up the club, says: "We did a lot of research into how after-school care operates in foreign countries such as Norway and Denmark. In those countries parents have subsidised after-school care. The downside there is that there are high taxes.''

The after-school club encourages a childcare method known as HighScope. Rather than scheduling a strict timetable, the children are encouraged to plan the activities for the afternoon themselves.

"The whole idea is to replicate the home environment. When the children come in they might be tired. They may want something to eat. So, we have food, but they don't have to eat then.

"They might just want to chill out on a settee. They have a planning time, a doing time and a review time, and they follow their own initiative.''

There is a room where children do homework and a separate woodwork and crafts den. There is plenty of opportunity for outdoor activity in landscaped gardens with a basketball court and a tree house.

The advocates of after-school clubs argue that they help to stop the 'latchkey kid' syndrome, where children are left unsupervised. In poorer areas, they enable pupils to receive help with homework.

Critics, on the other hand, believe they lead to over-scheduling of children, with children spending less time with their families and given less time to think for themselves.

In recent years, the government has tried to encourage national schools to include facilities for after-school care on their premises. However, very few primary schools have taken after-school care on board.

The Programme for Government has a commitment to develop after-school care in school buildings.

The British government recently announced that it is to invest an extra €1.5 billion in after-school clubs.

Extending school opening hours to between 8am and 6pm, the British scheme encourages extra sports, music, drama and homework supervision.

However, childcare consultant Goode believes that after-school clubs work at their best if they are away from a school setting.

"Research has been done on this subject by Barnardos in Britain and it shows that it is better to have an after-school club away from a school.

"If the children are staying in school, the activities tend to be similar to school activities. I think they work better if they provide something different to school.

"They should be less formal and have plenty of scope for outdoor activity.''

Goode says the subsidies given to after-school care in Ireland are not geared towards the working population.

"Most of the subsidies go to parents on welfare who, by definition, do not work.''

No formal statistics exist on the number of after-school clubs in the country, the number of children and families that they cater for or their distribution around the country.

However, Goode believes that the sector is likely to expand rapidly in the near future, because of pent-up demand.

"The issue of training is likely to become important. There is a need for staff who are trained to deal with children between 6 and 12.''

Training is likely to become more formalised soon, when FETAC (the Further Education and Training Awards Council) recognises courses in school age childcare.

"There is a need for more regulation in this area,'' says Theresa Heeney, director of Services at the National Children's Nurseries Association (NCNA).

"At present after-school clubs are not inspected. There is a need for the government to introduce measures to ensure that they are properly run.''



WHAT’S FOR AFTERS?

> Private after-school clubs attached to creches charge €70-€140 a week.

> The Park Academy’s After School Clubs costs €800 per month.

> Some second-level schools offer homework supervision.

> At fee-paying schools, parents may pay an extra amount for study supervision after formal lessons have finished.

> Separate after-school clubs, subsidised by the government, also operate free of charge in some disadvantaged areas.

> The clubs in poorer areas may help with homework, focussing on literacy and numeracy among younger pupils.

> Non-academic activities such as drama, art and music may also be covered.

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