It’s coming up to 7.50am and the first parents are beginning to arrive at Oatlands Primary School.
The children have an hour of activity before the proper school day begins.
When the school bell sounds in the afternoon, it marks the end of class for some. But for others, it is the beginning of the school’s aftercare services.
There’s a homework club, sports activity and arts and crafts which will continue until about 6.15pm.
“It has been a huge benefit to the school and parents, since it started up eight years ago,” says school principal Ber O’Sullivan.
“Everything happens on campus. It’s convenient for children, who don’t need to be driven anywhere. It’s affordable for parents. And it’s generating a certain amount of income for us.”
It may also be a glimpse of the future direction many other schools will take over the coming years. Under a new plan being developed by Minister for Education Richard Bruton, schools will be encouraged to make greater out-of-hours use of their school facilities.
In addition to offering working parents greater access to affordable after-school services, it holds the promise of extra funding for schools.
The INTO, the country’s biggest teachers’ union, says some schools have been providing these kinds of services for many years, though there has never been an official national policy.
In the past insurance, staffing and other administrative issues have proved stumbling blocks to realising these kinds of plans.
But one idea under consideration includes providing greater capitation funding in cases where schools respond to demand for after-school services.
There is much work to be done, however. At present, parents are left on their own to piece together a jigsaw of care once the education system is finished with their child halfway through the working day.
Variable qualityThe provision of after-school care – or, more broadly, out-of-school care – is patchy, unregulated and of variable quality, according to childcare professionals.
The previous government published a childcare strategy which pledged – subject to funding – to make subsidised after-school services available for children up to the end of primary school.
These subsidies would be provided for children attending services that meet certain safety and quality standards.
For Ber O’Sullivan, the idea of making after-school services and homework clubs available in school premises makes perfect sense.
The fact that the school is paying for rates and other services means it is able to offer after- school services for up to a third cheaper than private facilities.
Its prices start at €100 a month for five mornings of childcare before primary school begins, from 7.50am to 8.50am; it climbs to €500 a month for a child who avails of childcare both before and after school five days a week.
The after-school service is provided by seven staff members who are not teachers, but who have childcare qualifications.
The school also leases out the premises for Easter, summer and midterm camps when the schools are on holidays, while other groups hire the classroom in the evening time for other purposes. All profits, says O’Sullivan, are reinvested back into the school.
Not everyone is so keen on the plans, however.
Early Childhood Ireland, the main representative group for childcare providers, is worried the schools could undercut its members by benefiting from cheaper rent and overheads.
Ambitious planTeresa Heeney, chief executive of Early Childhood Ireland, says any plans to increase after-school provision need to recognise that many groups are providing these services already.
Similarly, governments have a habit of discovering after-care as a policy idea, only for the results to fail.
For example, an ambitious plan announced four years ago to provide thousands of subsidised after-school places, resulted in just a fraction of the numbers that had been promised being delivered.
While ministers said the scheme would provide “upwards of 6,000” subsidised places, targeted at low-income families, just over 100 children had ended up availing of the scheme two years after it was launched.
Childcare experts said a combination of low payment rates for childcare providers, limited knowledge of the scheme and practical obstacles to accessing after-school care were to blame for the low take-up.
Whatever about the dilemma facing private providers, after-school services are in heavy demand in schools such as Oatlands.
There are long waiting lists for aftercare services: about a quarter of the children in the school avail of some of these out-of-hours services.
Attendance at homework clubs soon could rival the turnout for more traditional afterschool offerings. The clubs give students the help and structure they need to complete assignments. Included: Descriptions of how homework clubs are organized.
Often when youngsters get around to starting their homework, distractions from television, computers, friends, and family make studying a challenge and help is not available. So more students are doing their homework in places other than home, such as school-, library-, and community-sponsored homework clubs.
After-school homework clubs are growing in many communities, with most of them focused on elementary and middle school students. Clubs meet at least one day a week after school and are supervised by teachers or faculty members and volunteers. Students receive general academic help and/or homework assistance.
While some homework clubs are more formal than others, most allow students to "attend" whenever they feel the need. The programs are geared not only to children having trouble with schoolwork, but those who find it hard to concentrate at home or have no one to provide homework assistance.
"We try to re-enforce concepts and the instruction from class," said Damiano Russo, assistant principal of Dearborn Street Elementary School in Northridge, California. "We have a diverse population, and many parents working two jobs. We want to be available for the students. Sometimes teachers will recommend the club to parents if their children are having trouble concentrating at home."
The Dearborn club meets for 90 minutes four days a week, and is staffed by a teaching assistant and a volunteer, who familiarize themselves with classroom assignments. About 25 children attend each day. "It's goal-directed, we try to minimize distractions," Russo added.
Suzanne Piotrowski, a learning disabled specialist at Beech Street Elementary School, in Manchester, New Hampshire, said her school's homework club for third through fifth graders is equally popular. The club meets for an hour after school, three days a week, and draws about 60 students each week.
"Students get tutoring and help completing homework," Piotrowski told Education World. "Some just do homework and some need re-explanation." School officials had hoped more special education students would attend, but the club has been more popular with mainstream students.
The school started the club because a fifth-grade teacher started helping some students after school who she knew had trouble doing homework at home because of noise or other difficulties, according to Piotrowski.
The move to middle school also can mean a big change on the homework scene, and the homework club at Granite Mountain Middle School in Prescott, Arizona, has been so heavily attended that the school had to find another teacher for seventh graders, said Marilyn McCready, the school's library media specialist, who oversees the homework club. "It's very popular and more popular after report cards come out," McCready told Education World.
About 60 students attend every week. Students meet in classrooms with one of four teachers, three of whom are math teachers and one a science teacher. McCready said she recruited math teachers because that is the subject with which students have the most difficulty.
"One reason our homework club is successful is that the teachers maintain it like a regular classroom," she added. "They expect the students to be working and quiet."
Granite's club also meets for an hour after school two days a week, and has a drop-in policy. The only requirement is that once students show up, they must stay for the whole hour unless a parent comes to pick them up. "We've made it as easy as we can."
Teams at Bennet Middle School in Manchester, Connecticut, also organize homework clubs, and set up a schedule for staffing them, said language arts teacher Jenna Brohinsky, team leader for the Royal 7's, a seventh grade team. Students can come for an hour of help after school on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, and some get a chance to work in the computer lab, Brohinsky added.
In some cities, community agencies have taken the lead on homework clubs. Libraries in Sandwell, in the United Kingdom, and Toronto, Ontario, Canada, for example, sponsor clubs.
The Toronto Public Library operates the Leading to Reading program to help youngsters improve reading skills and homework clubs in 33 of its 99 branches. The Toronto clubs are more formal than some of the after-school programs in the U.S. Students in second through sixth grade sign up for the program, and the library arranges for a volunteer to meet with the student at the library once a week at a specific time for between 60 and 90 minutes.
Library staff members recruit, screen, and train the volunteers, who range in age from high school students to senior citizens. Some library branches have been fortunate to get volunteers from nearby York University, which has a teacher education program. The volunteers provide assistance on a one-to-one or one-to-two basis, and paid monitors oversee the volunteers.
Last year about 347 children participated in the homework clubs and Leading to Reading programs, said Cathy Thompson, east region coordinator for the Leading to Reading and Homework Help programs of the Toronto Public Library.
"Every branch has a waiting list," said David Kondo, Leading to Reading and Homework Help program coordinator, for the west region of the library. "We are limited by space, the number of volunteers, and the salaries of the site monitors."
This year, the library started a homework program for teenagers, because so many who had participated as elementary students came back seeking help, said Joanne Hawthorne a specialist in children and teen services for the Toronto Public Library.
Teen clubs started this year in six branches, and also involve volunteers doing one-on-one tutoring, Hawthorne told Education World. While originally aimed at high school students, some clubs have been opened up to seventh and eighth graders, she said.
While the supervisors have not done studies on the effectiveness of the homework clubs, the feedback from teachers has been positive.
"Anecdotally, we've heard positive things, but we haven't done any follow-up studies," said Russo. "Classroom teachers report that more homework assignments are being done when kids go to homework club. So far it has been a very positive experience, and well-worth the investment."
"Teachers do say at least some kids who were not getting their homework in are doing it," added McCready.
Toronto library staff members have seen homework club students make big gains, Kondo said. "In some cases, the results have been spectacular," he told Education World. "Certainly, a student could go from a C to a B. The fact that the volunteer sees the same child week-to-week means they get used to each other. And any time a child can get individual help, it is great."