Extending out-of-hours childcare is a good idea in principle – but the government needs to clarify its proposals, including the age range it has in mind and who will foot the bill

There has been a lot of discussion at the Conservative conference this week about the importance of giving young people the skills and experience to cope with the demands that they will face in 21st century Britain. Employers, politicians and education leaders all agree that we need to help children develop the character and resilience they will need to be successful in a rapidly changing labour market.

How are schools to provide those opportunities, however, in timetables that are already crowded? One way they do so is by providing out-of-hours activities. So, Nicky Morgan’s announcement of extended “childcare” before and after school and during the holidays may be a good idea in principle. We do, however, have some concerns.

The education secretary’s short statement leaves many unanswered questions. The first thing to be clarified is what is meant by “childcare”. What schools already provide through breakfast clubs, after-school clubs and holiday clubs goes well beyond simply looking after children. Out-of-hours activities are provided up and down the country and give children a wealth of opportunities to develop a range of skills, including sports, chess, arts and crafts.

Extending childcare must not become another burden on schools

These activities are an ideal way of giving children the chance to learn the sort of “soft skills” that are widely considered so important. Sports clubs, for instance, help to develop teamwork, leadership skills and good interpersonal relationships.

Out-of-hours childcare often means putting on activities – and this can be tremendously beneficial – but we do need to understand what the government is proposing and the age range it has in mind.

We do know that parents will be given a “right to request” out-of-hours childcare and there will be an expectation on schools to take “reasonable steps” to accommodate it. Reports suggest it will not be obligatory, but schools will be required to publish reasons why they do not respond to requests from groups of parents or childcare providers.

We have two areas of concern. The first is that there are many reasons why a school is unable to provide or extend out-of-hours childcare. They may not have buildings that are suitable or enough staff to manage these demands. They may be too busy struggling to cope with the huge number of changes that are taking place in education.

So, the new requirement must not put unreasonable expectations on school leaders and their decisions must be respected. It also must not lead to additional bureaucracy in managing requests and publishing responses. Schools are already under severe workload pressure. They have to be able to concentrate on their core functions of teaching and improving standards further without more distractions.

Our second concern is money. Is this extra childcare going to be funded by the government or by parents? If it is the latter, provision will only be available to those who can afford it. However, it should surely be accessible to everybody, regardless of their income. Another topic of conversation at this week’s Conservative conference has been the importance of social mobility. A key way of achieving this is to ensure that disadvantaged families have the same opportunities to benefit from additional childcare as others. The success of this policy will be severely limited if it benefits only the middle class.

On a wider point, we would also stress the importance of a community-wide effort to give children extra opportunities outside school hours in general rather than it being the responsibility of schools alone. We know there are lots of great partnerships around the country, but we need more agencies and groups to work with schools to help them to provide activities.

Extending out-of-hours childcare must not become just another burden on schools. The proposals must be realistic and properly resourced, and we need to work together to find ways of giving children the “soft skills” that will help to set them up for life.