Just as children’s education suffers the impact of COVID-19, we also start to bear the worrying fruits of past budget cuts to after-school clubs.

The benefits of after-school clubs can seem both intuitive and easy-to-ignore. The social and educational benefits of children having the chance to take part in fulfilling activities, instead of leaving school in mid-afternoon to potentially return to a difficult family life or idleness on the streets, feel self-evident.
And yet that after-school clubs are, by their very nature, extra-curricular means to some that they can seem of secondary importance to everyday schooling and therefore non- essential.

This could not be further from the truth. After-school activities play a central role in tackling educational inequalities and other broader social issues, including youth crime. We ignore or discount their benefits – and the impact of their closure – at our peril.

For young kids with parents struggling to care for them either as a result of addiction, mental illness or working unsociable hours to make ends meet, after school clubs are an invaluable lifeline.

Arts and crafts classes, for example, give children a much-needed creative outlet, helping many to discover skills that might otherwise have gone unrecognised. Sports and games clubs provide children with a sense of camaraderie and a constructive outlet for channelling their energy. After school homework clubs and educational support groups, meanwhile, help struggling children or those with difficulty working at home to keep pace with their peers.

For disadvantaged young people, having the chance to socialise in a safe environment off the streets and away from trouble can be the difference between succeeding at school and slipping into petty crime. Drafting in community organisers, who possess valuable social capital in specific communities, to run clubs can fill an important hole in the lives of young people, garnering respect as role models and helping to direct youthful energies in a positive direction.

Yet for all the intuitive benefits of after-school clubs, precious little academic research has been done to support their funding. A study by the Nuffield Foundation in 2016 was the first of its kind in this country to document the impact after school clubs have on bridging the attainment gap between children from disadvantaged backgrounds and their wealthier peers.

This research showed that poorer children between the ages of 5 and 11 scored on average 2 points more in their Key Stage 2 if they took part in after-school activities. That’s equivalent to bridging 40% of the attainment gap.

Perhaps partly as a result of a lack of academic research underpinning their importance, youth services have in the past decade borne the brunt of deep funding cuts to local government expenditure. Youth services, including after school clubs, have declined by 70% nationwide and by more than 90% in certain areas.

For governments tasked with reeling in spending, cuts to local government have long been seductive. The lag time between funding being withdrawn and the social impact being felt means such cuts often appear, in the short-term at least, to be less politically harmful.

The results though are now starting to emerge. Faced with a growing knife crime epidemic in our cities, parliamentarians in the APPG on Knife Crime commissioned a report into the effects of cuts to youth services on knife crime. Their findings this year confirmed a strong correlation between the extent of local cuts to youth services and rises in knife crime. Educational inequalities look to be worsening too: after narrowing for many years, the attainment gap has now increased for three years in a row.

As the full social and educational impact of Covid-19 and related lockdown measures becomes known, what’s needed is a full-throated acknowledgement of the importance of after-school activities and a major reinvestment in youth services.

With governments counting the cost of this pandemic, funding grants for after-school clubs may be scarce. Much of the responsibility, therefore, will fall on the third sector. Private charitable organisations and ordinary people giving their time to serve their community must step in.

For many children, what happens after school dictates their success just as much as what happens in the classroom. It’s about time we all recognised it and the Nick Maughan Foundation will be channelling our resources into helping revitalise this essential service.