The sight of children milling about the playground and rushing to the school canteen for lunch is not unusual – except this is during the summer holidays.
Primaries in some of Scotland’s most deprived areas have opened their doors for the first time to help provide meals and activities for families. The project, being run by charity Children in Scotland, has been launched to help those facing a financial struggle over the long summer holidays.
For parents on low incomes whose children are entitled to free school meals, this includes not only the cost of entertainment over the holidays but providing an extra meal every day.
Dalmarnock Primary, in Glasgow’s east end, has one of the highest rates of entitlement to free school meals in Scotland, with 56% of pupils registered. The average across Scotland for primary pupils is 38.8%.
Normally during summer holidays the school would be quiet and deserted. Last week the playground was packed with children enjoying activities such as chalk drawing, playing tennis and toasting marshmallows on an open fire. Parents chatted over coffee before joining their children for a healthy packed lunch and activities in the afternoon – last Thursday, it was a pop-up cinema showing Peter Pan.
Jackie Brock, chief executive of the charity, said while many local authorities offered summer camps, parents had usually to pay. The sessions at the school, which will take place over the next month, are free and open to all pupils and their parents.
She added: “When we talked to schools about how we could offer support, the heads told us that what worries them most is when children aren’t at school and they told us they would love to be able to get some help to support families during holiday time. It shows a real generosity of the staff and an awareness of the pressures the families are under."
As well as entertainment for the children, parents who attend can take part in activities ranging from craft and beauty therapy sessions to CV writing and training in digital skills. Brock added: “Parents wanted to be involved too – this isn’t about a glorified food bank for the children and it isn’t about glorified childcare.”
The project has been welcomed by parent Margaret Wood, 51, who has three children aged 12, 10 and nine attending the sessions. “As soon as they are off school," she said "there is the pressure to find more money. Here it is brilliant, as in the mornings they do stuff with the kids, we all have lunch and then the parents join in.
“The kids are enjoying this, they are not bored – it gives us a break as we don’t need to worry about where the weans are. It is a great idea and I hope they do it next year.”
Linda Campbell, 46, who brought along her two daughters and grandchildren, pointed out even ‘cheap’ days out during summer holidays could end up costing a lot of money. “Even when you go to the park, the ice-cream van arrives and if you have got four weans it is about £6 for ice-cream,” she said. “This saves you plenty of money and you don’t have to think every day about taking them somewhere.”
While the assumption might be that going to school during holidays is not popular with pupils, Averil Lawson, 32, said she had difficulty in keeping her seven-year-old son away. “I tried to get him to stay at home today but he wasn’t having it,” she said. “He knew he was coming to play and that was it.”
In the first week of the sessions, which are also taking place at Ibrox Primary in Glasgow, there has been huge demand for the service. The target was for around 40 children each day to attend Dalmarnock Primary, but on Tuesday 54 turned up.
Head teacher Nancy Clunie said there were some difficulties in opening the school in holidays which had to be overcome, such as seeking permission to use the kitchen from the arms-length organisation which runs it during term-time.
Fees are normally charged for the use of the school out-of-hours, but the council has also donated the use of the building to help keep costs down.
Clunie added: “We decided we wanted parents involved - we didn’t want it to be about providing childcare and we wanted parental engagement with the school and with their children. We are running the sessions for a month - we decided that was long enough, as we didn’t want children in school every day over the holidays."
Michaela Collins, play development manager at the Possibilities for Each and Every Kid (PEEK) project, which is running the play sessions at Dalmarnock Primary, pointed out that the streets in some areas were often not safe enough for children to play outside alone during the summer.
“In school is where they feel safe, where they feel comfortable and can have a good experience," she said.