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Britain's After-School Care May Outpace US Model

At midafternoon every weekday, eight-year-old Katie and her friend Francesca, age 7, are picked up by childminders from their school in Clapham, South London, and taken to the nearby William Wilberforce after-school care center.

Along with about 20 other children, they remain there, playing or doing homework, until their parents show up at around 6 p.m. to take them home.

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The facility, resembling measures promoted by President Clinton, is used exclusively by well-to-do parents, who pay 35 ($58) a week for each child to be looked after. Currently, only 2 British children in every 100 benefit from after-school care.

But under government measures announced Nov. 26, care centers similar to the Wilberforce will become a high-profile part of Britain's educational landscape.

About 30,000 such centers are to be established across Britain at a cost to the government of 300 million ($495 million). Specially trained staff will provide after-school care for about 1 million five- to 12-year-olds.

The program is designed to help single mothers on welfare, who, because of parental responsibilities, feel they have no option but to stay home.

Announcing the plan, Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown said it was part of the government's larger welfare-to-work program, which is aimed at reducing social security costs.

The Labour government came to power in the May 1 general election promising to help the long-term unemployed and to give special attention to the needs of single parents.

"Lone parents need and have a right to expect affordable child care," Mr. Brown told the House of Commons.

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The idea has also been promoted by Home Secretary Jack Straw, who is keen to reduce juvenile crime, much of it committed by children left unattended after school.

As in the United States, statistics indicate that most juvenile crime in Britain is committed between 3 and 8 p.m.

Unlike the Clinton administration however, the British government regards crime prevention more as a valuable by-product of after-school programs, rather than an end in itself.

All the same, Brown's officials say the British plan draws much of its inspiration from ideas pushed by the Clinton administration.

Soon after his reelection, Mr. Clinton began proposing a range of measures to cope with the problem of "latchkey kids," including keeping schools open all afternoon and establishing nighttime basketball clubs to keep young people off the streets.

House and Senate committees are considering legislation that would give grants to schools to set up after-hours services, including mentoring and recreational activities.

Sweden, too, with its highly developed welfare state, has provided Britain with a model. Nearly half of the country's children attend government-funded child-care centers.

Elsewhere in Europe however, the idea of direct state involvement has been slow to catch on.

According to a German embassy spokesman in London, many large corporations in Germany provide day-care facilities for the children of employees.

In France, city governments provide day-care centers subsidized by local taxes.

By contrast, the plan outlined by Brown calls for heavy government spending to establish, staff, and run the centers. Most will be attached to existing schools, allowing children to go to centers on their own school premises. This will also help to keep building and administrative costs down.

Under the British plan, children of needy mothers will be cared for free of charge. Parents who can afford to contribute will be asked to do so.

Brown told the Commons: "Every lone parent who needs it will be able to find an out-of-school center in their community."

Child-care groups have welcomed the initiative.

Anne Longfield, director of the Kids' Club Network of private care centers, calls it "a fantastic thing for children and working parents."

Susanne McGregor, professor of social policy at Middlesex University, near London, notes a change in underlying social attitudes toward working parents.

"In the 1950s it was socially respectable for women not to work," she says. "Now the reverse is true. It is eminently respectable for women to work."

One aspect of the plan, however is drawing criticism from the opposition Conservative Party.

In announcing the initiative, Brown appeared to indicate that its 300 million in funding would come from taxes.

A day later, Social Security Secretary Harriet Harman disclosed that 220 million of that money would come from the proceeds of Britain's national lottery.

Virginia Bottomley, a former senior Conservative minister, called it "a raid on the lottery."

But Ms. Harman countered: "Lottery money is the people's money, and the people want it to be spent in every community in high-quality child care."

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