After-school programs invade Britain

It's getting dark and the bell for the final class of the day has long since rung, but the classrooms and corridors of Latchmere Junior school are still abuzz with activity.

In one room, a triangular table of 10-year-olds pour over French grammar lessons, muttering gallicisms in hushed tones; in another room, younger, apple-cheeked children spiritedly play team games. Outside, netball enthusiasts learn the basics of the game, as a clatter of little footballers trot past on the way to practice.

Welcome to Britain's fast-growing world of after-school school, a whole new syllabus of classes, activities, games, and holiday clubs that are keeping children on the premises long after the official day is done.

While after-school activities have been around for years in Britain, as in the United States, the government now wants to formalize the programs in what it calls "extended schooling" or "wraparound education." This would elongate every school day with a mix of clubs, courses, and childcare facilities. For some children, the traditional 9:00 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. day could stretch to 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.

The transformation would, the government argues, give children the chance to try their hand at a wider range of disciplines. The extended hours would also buy crucial time for busy parents, enabling them better to juggle the workday and the run to pick up kids at school. In addition, longer hours could turn schools into community hubs, offering adult courses, health advice centers, parenting workshops, and family learning programs.

But the idea has its detractors. Some teachers worry that additional demands will be placed on their busy weekly schedules. Others say children will be too tired to make the most of the late-afternoon activities. Indeed, some wonder if the policy is truly aimed at the well-being of the children or the needs of the growing number of families in which both parents work.

"It's definitely not meant to be used as childcare, but it certainly is used that way by some parents," says Marion Ayres, who coordinates the after-school program at Latchmere.

The school has run occasional clubs for some years, Ms. Ayres says, but "not on the scale we have now," with at least half a dozen different options every weekday. She says the aim is not to relieve parents of childcare duties but to give children the chance to do different things - from drama to dance, gymnastics to gardening, computer studies to Spanish. Of the 360 children at the school, more than three quarters do some form of after-school activity. "For some children, school is the only opportunity they will get," says Ayres.

For the British government, Latchmere sets a positive example for other schools to follow. Education secretary Ruth Kelly, herself a mother of four, has made it clear that she expects every school in the land to become "extended" by 2010. Already, a fifth of primary (ages 4-11) and a quarter of secondary (11-18) schools provide childcare and activities outside normal school hours, according to a government study. And the policy fits snugly with government proposals, unveiled in October, to transform the way schools are organized, giving more power and choice to parents. "Initial evaluation already shows that extended schools are having a positive impact on children's learning, improving both attendance and motivation," said Ms. Kelly. [Editor's note: The original version misdated when government proposals were unveiled.]

Some teachers have their doubts. Chris Brotherton, a Spanish teacher in the western city of Bristol, regrets the passing of the era of treehouses and tea-time television, when children raced home from school to spend time with their siblings. "When we were kids, we loved coming home at 3:30, making some toast, watching some telly, and spending time together," he says. "The children I teach are exhausted at 3:30. There's no way they could concentrate on additional disciplines at that time of day."

Mr. Brotherton adds that pressure will inevitably bear down on teachers to "fill in the gaps" in the after-school timetable. The government has earmarked £680 million ($1.17 billion) over the next two years to enable schools to buy in services from outside specialists - a freelance French teacher or soccer coach, for example. But the suspicion is that this will not be enough, and schools will have to rely on the goodwill of their staff to handle after-school activities. "Some won't mind, but one of the perks of this job is that you can say no if you need to," says Brotherton. Many teachers are, after all, parents themselves who need to look after their own children at 3:30.

The idea may be more welcome in deprived areas, where private opportunities for children are limited and where parents may be grateful for the additional help. In the gritty northern town of Heywood, extended school manager Sarah Blunn says her program runs clubs for children, courses for adults, and provides important security for parents looking to get back to work.

"We do a lot of adult learning and provide courses to get parents skilled up for going back into the workplace" she says. "And the kids clubs have been very successful. If you know your child is safe and well and having exciting opportunities after school and being fed and watered for two pounds a day, then yes, it does free up time for parents to work full time."

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