Lisa Markwell: When there are streets to roam...

What children get up to after school plagues parents' imaginations

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So, we must move to the country and give up our jobs, apparently. Yes, this week has been a trying one for parents of tween and teenage kids. Those not rich/geographically blessed/ devious enough (delete as appropriate) to secure a top-notch secondary school waited for notification of their child's allotted place with no little trepidation. Then yesterday we heard from the charity Action for Children that "latchkey kids", those who spend time alone between the end of the school day and the return of their working parents, are at risk of turning to delinquency.

As my 13-year-old might say, well, duh. They roam around, these fully made-up girls and boys with pseudo pimp-roll walks, with brains and bodies restless after a day cooped up, eager for stimulation but lacking the funds or maturity to do what we'd do if we had four free hours – go for a coffee with friends or curl up on the sofa with a good book.

They're indignant at the idea of a childminder or babysitter keeping tabs on them but I, for one, feel very uneasy about allowing my child to spend hours unaccounted for. I'm not alone: three in four parents of children between 11 and 14 believe they are too young to look after themselves.

Obviously not all of these latchkey kids are on the search for mischief like the one who stole a bike from a younger boy just outside the school gates, concocted a story for the police when challenged then offered, that evening, to sell it back to the victim. But smoking? Drinking? Shoplifting? They're no stretch of the imagination for the parent of all but the most mild-mannered of year eights, nines or tens. Action for Children's report, "Deprivation and Risk", calls for a longer school day to diminish the opportunity for delinquency, stating that the current hours suited the 19th-century practice of children working after school, but are no longer appropriate. But at the same time Anne Longfield of the charity 4Children warns against sticking kids in a classroom "from dawn till dusk".

Lengthen the school day, or rearrange it? No teenager of my acquaintance would argue against an extra hour in bed in the morning, and a 9.30am-5.30pm day would tee them up nicely for life after school – should there be any actual jobs available for their generation, of course. That only adds an extra hour to the current arrangement, and the suggestion that the last two hours could be spent on more jolly activities, like sport, art or drama, is a good one.

But at this week's parents evening I watched a design and technology teacher try with admirable doggedness to cajole his pupils into joining his after-school Lego League club. The response was lacklustre – until he mentioned competitions and prizes.

Perhaps the key is in appealing to this much maligned age-group's burgeoning entrepreneurial spirit; after all, there's a waiting list for paper-rounds in our neighbourhood because they pay £6 a day.

Pay the kids to go to school? Not quite. Invent wage-paying activities to keep them quiet? That's a bit, well, prison. But creative classes for two hours with prizes sponsored by games companies/software manufacturers/sports brands? Now there's an idea...

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