Self-reliance can point the way to a sustainable future
Children have never had so much choice of after-school activities - from literacy sessions and homework support to t'ai chi, from netball and football taught by professional coaches to clubs for chess and Dr Who fans. But can it last? Can schools provide these at a low enough cost to be accessible to all and sustain them financially over the long term?
Such activities are one of the elements of the "core offer" of the extended school that all schools are required to provide by 2010. They include study support - catch-up sessions and homework clubs, usually offered free of charge - and constitute an integral part of many primaries' childcare offer.
At Robertsbridge Community College in East Sussex, all activities offered to its pupils are free. They are paid for out of income earned from renting facilities to community groups and with funds raised from different sources by the college's full-time extended schools co- ordinator.
"It's about knowing where to access money," says Karen Roberts, the headteacher. Part of the co-ordinator's salary is paid by East Sussex's Local Partnership for Children. Ms Roberts wants to secure the funding over the longer term. "We'll bid for the post to be extended to at least a three-year contract," she says.
ContinYou, the charity that is contracted by the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) to help develop extended schools, is concerned that relying on a variety of funding streams, grants and budgets can leave schools vulnerable.
"Schools need to charge so their provision can be sustained over the long term," says Jenna Hall, ContinYou's director for study support. "Young people are increasingly fed up with short-term provision, even if it is free."
Both ContinYou and the DCSF stress that if charging for activities is to succeed, schools must first consult rigorously with their parents, pupils and wider communities. Each school's governing body must then devise and publish its charging and fee-remission policy. At Robertsbridge, the extended schools co-ordinator took her questionnaires out into the town and surrounding villages and conducted face-to-face interviews. At Delaware Community Primary in Gunnislake, Cornwall, headteacher Jo Grail (see box, right) invited the local community to an open weekend. She also sent out questionnaires.
But discrepancy between charging and questions of equity are inevitable. "There are huge differences between schools," Dave Sugg, extended school strategy manager for East Sussex, says. "In prosperous parts of East Sussex, you can charge £2.50 a session. In less well-off areas, ask a pound and they won't come near it."
Once a school invites in private providers rather than hiring staff itself to run the activities, it becomes harder to keep costs down. Clubs at one primary in south-west London cost between £4.50 and £9.50 per session, with parents required to pay up front for the full 10 sessions, while the school down the road keeps provision in-house and has an upper limit of £2.50 per session.
The national charity 4Children, which supports childcare provision within the extended school, points out that parents negotiating their way through the working tax credit system can claim back the cost of clubs and after- school activities as long as the providers are Ofsted registered. "Tax credits can be used to cover club fees, because they are part of a childcare package," says Anne Longfield, the chief executive of the charity.
Ultimately, it is up to a school's governing body to ensure that the charging policy guarantees access for all children regardless of income. "Schools will wish to ensure there is free access to some study support and affordable services for low-income families and other groups," the DCSF says. It has promised more money for "disadvantaged children" from April this year in pilot projects, which will be made more generally available in 2009-10 and 2010-11.
There is no requirement for schools to monitor the uptake of after-school activities by particular groups of pupils. Many heads rely on close knowledge of their pupils to ensure that none of them is denied access. They are allowed to waive fees where appropriate.
"If children were denied access, we would guarantee it," says Jo Grail at Delaware Primary. "Each child has a termly meeting with their mentor. We can ask then, 'Is there something you'd like to do that you're not doing?' It would come up in that way."
But she would never subsidise a child from the school's delegated budget and is determined that after-school activities and childcare at her school should be self-financing. Other schools rely on voluntary funds raised from parents which they already use to subsidise school trips.
There is public money available. The Government is investing £1.277 billion in extended schools over the next five years. Sustainability funding and a subsidy scheme will be entrusted to local authorities, while schools are encouraged to use funds for personalised learning - already located within their school standards and dedicated schools grants - to pay for extra after-school study support.
"There is more money in there than has ever been the case but it's difficult to get hold of," says Anne Longfield. "If the money goes to local authorities and schools within their general budget, then it will get lost in the system."
CHARGING FOR CLUBS: WHAT WHITEHALL SAYS
- Charging enables schools to enhance the quality and frequency of the extended opportunities they offer. If services are sustainable, families can rely on them in the long term.
- Every school governing body must devise and publish a charging and fee remission policy in consultation with parents.
- Schools will wish to ensure that there is free access to some study support (to support personalisation) and affordable services for low- income families and other groups.
- Schools may use their delegated budgets to fund access to study support generally for the children and young people in low-income families.
Source: Planning and funding extended schools: a guide for school, local authorities and their partner organisations, DCSF 2006
Improved provision at an affordable price
"Between 8.50am and 3.15pm we're a school and everything's free. Anything outside of that is charged for," says Jo Grail (left), headteacher of Delaware Community Primary School, on the Devon-Cornwall border.
The school serves a diverse rural population, which includes pockets of real poverty, and charges £1.75 per session for all the activities it offers.
"We asked how much people would be prepared to pay and started off charging £1, says Ms Grail. "It's gone up year on year by 25p, and the numbers attending have also gone up, as the quality of what we're offering has improved. Parents can choose to pay up front for a six-week block, or they can pay session by session."
Pam Geggie, the extended school co-ordinator works 15 hours a week, collecting money, booking sessions and ensuring Criminal Records Bureau checks on staff have been made.
Activities for the 200 pupils include chess, art club, gymnastics and drama, while those open to the local community range from the standard football and tag rugby (above) through cookery for teenagers to unicycle hockey and rock school.
Delaware directly employs everyone who runs a session. All are paid the standard local sports coach rate of £12 an hour.
"It's tricky to get hold of people," admits Ms Grail. "We grow our own - parents and teaching assistants are now training up."
Crucially, she says, "we've responded to local needs and it's constantly evolving. When something hasn't worked, we've changed it. People come in numbers because they want what we're providing. Overall, it is self- financing."