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What the Children Say – SAC


Tuesday 12 May 2020

‘I like to chillax’ and ‘go outside and play’: What children want from school age care and it’s not a Schoolification model.

The whole landscape of children’s participation in Ireland has evolved since our ratification of the UNCRC in the early 1990’s. I have spent the last twenty years teaching, writing about and conducting participatory research with children. Some of this has involved documenting government consultations with children on a range of policy issues. One such issue – school age childcare - is having a moment! In many ways the ‘Cinderella’ of our childcare services, school age childcare (SAC), is an important and growing cohort of the childcare system representing 20.5% or 40, 588 of all children enrolled in childcare in 2018/19 (Pobal, 2019). There has been recent attention and action from government with the publication of the Action Plan on School Age Childcare, the introduction of the National Childcare scheme, the implementation of systems of registration, as well as the publication of Draft National Quality Standards developed by the National Working Group on SAC in the past two years.

So, it is timely to consider the experiences and views of children in all of this. There have been consultations with a range of SAC stakeholders on issues of access, cost, delivery etc., but no voices are more important than those using the service – the children. There is a consensus that inclusion of children’s perspectives improves decision-making, creates better policy and services, and enhances democratic processes. Simply put, children can tell us things that no other stakeholder can – namely what it is like to be a child using a school age childcare service. No adult can give us this particular insight.


Myself and colleagues Jacqui O’Riordan, Shirley Martin, and Jane O’Sullivan reported on Consultations with Children on SAC commissioned for the Action Plan on SAC (DYCA, 2017). These consultations were held in eight counties with 81 five to seven year olds and 96 eight to twelve year olds. The aims were to identify what children like and dislike about their current afterschool care arrangements and the places where children would most like to be cared for after school. The methods included a variety of child-centred group and individual activities including ice-breaker games, post-it activities, place mats, timelines, and voting.


So what did we find? Unsurprisingly, play dominated. For both cohorts of children involved in the consultations the issue of play, in particular outdoor play, was a priority and by far the most frequently mentioned activity to emerge when asked to design their ideal or imagined after-school care. A home-like environment was preferred by children of all ages with the findings indicating that children want to be able to relax and feel comfortable after school. Relationships with family, extended family, friends, childminders and other carers were noted as being very important to children. Eating and cooking were also identified as important activities for children after-school.


Children in group SAC settings mentioned a larger number of issues which they disliked compared to the children in other SAC environments. They expressed a dislike of being in structured environments with rules, of not being treated appropriately for their age along with lack of food choice. Children were critical of being in settings that they felt they had outgrown and of the limited range of activities and equipment available to them in some SAC settings. Examples they gave included seats that were too small for them, inappropriate and broken toys and equipment, being with children who were younger than them, being unable to play outside, and having to follow similar and very predictable patterns of activities. Some also disliked the ways they were treated by some of the staff in these settings. They were critical of staff who they perceived as being ‘bossy’ or ‘not nice’ and who they felt did not listen to them.


In a voting exercise with the younger children, homework was the thing they liked least about their SAC experience. While children seemed resigned to the fact that homework had to be done, it was referred to mostly in a negative light as boring and an inconvenience, with children indicating that they like to get homework out of the way. For some older children in group SAC settings, help with homework was identified as a positive factor. While others disliked having to do their homework because they did not get appropriate help or the setting was too loud. Finally, the older children voted for ‘where would you like to be cared for after school?’ from a list identified by themselves. Overwhelmingly the children voted for home as the place they would most like to be cared for after school (57%). This was followed by friends’ houses, relatives, an afterschool club, childminder and crèche.


The Programme for Government 2016 and First Five Implementation Plan 2019-2021 commits to support and expand quality after-school care based broadly on utilising existing primary school buildings and other existing facilities. However, children are telling us they want something very different from school age childcare. How can we resolve these tensions? The Action Plan on School Age Childcare notes that if it is not possible to facilitate children’s preference for SAC at home, ‘then the system of SAC must seek to reproduce their preferences in a variety of settings, other than their home’ (DCYA & DES, 2017, p. 62). One measure is attending to the quality of group SAC provision ensuring quality standards in the physical environment, adult/child ratios, the provision of appropriate food and nutrition, access to outdoor play, inclusion, and the health, well-being and protection of the child in all settings used.


A detailed consultation on the development of regulations and a quality framework for school-age childcare took place during 2019, and the final report on the consultation is due to be published shortly. I would argue that any such framework must act on the views and concerns of children - on issues such as transitions from school, the physical space, choice in terms of eating (what and when), activities, and homework. SAC services which forefront play and ‘home from home’ environments must become the norm. Let us see!!!


Pobal (2019) 2018/2019 Annual Early Years Sector Profile Report.



Dr Deirdre Horgan is a Senior Lecturer in Social Policy at the School of Applied Social Studies, University College Cork. She is Deputy Director of the BA Early Years and Childhood Studies at UCC. Deirdre’s research interests include children and young people’s participation, children’s rights and citizenship, child welfare and protection and childhood migration. She has conducted and reported on a number of consultations with children for the DCYA, and other government departments. Deirdre has presented at international conferences and published widely in international peer-reviewed journal in these areas. She is currently co-editing a book on children’s participation with the Children’s Research Network.

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