With the Government handing over millions of pounds to give all parents access to school-based childcare, Lindsay Jennings visits a school in Darlington which is already leading the way.

IT is 8.25am. The school hall is filled with the sound of children chattering as they queue up for their breakfast, clutching multi-coloured plastic plates and bowls. An amiable-looking teaching assistant is sitting at a wide table, butter knife in hand and a mountain of toast by her side. As well as the toast, the children at the Skerne Park Primary School breakfast club in Darlington can have cereal, fruit juice and milk.

"It's very popular and it's really helped people get their children to school on time," says Di Teasdale, the school's headteacher. "It gives the children a really good start to the day with a healthy breakfast.

"Actually it's amazing how much they can eat. It used to cost 20p but we had to put the price up to 30p to cover what they ate."

The breakfast club is one of many elements of the "wraparound" care offered from 8am to 6pm in various buildings across the school site, which is in the middle of the Skerne Park estate.

Work is underway on a new £4.4m building which, when it is finished in February, will become one of the Government's flagship education centres, offering access to school-based care under one roof. It will include a Sure Start centre - seen as one of the Government's more successful initiatives - the nursery and primary school and the breakfast club, after-school club, out-of-school club and a parent and toddler group. Adult learners will also be able to use the facilities.

The centre, which will be known as Riverside, is central to the Government's plans for schools to be open from 8am to 6pm.

Earlier this week, Education Secretary Ruth Kelly announced that the Government would be pumping in £680m over the next three years to encourage more schools to set up breakfast and after-school clubs to help working parents. The Department for Education and Skills is keen for the extended hours to be known as "Kelly Hours", but in reality, the plans are a relaunched policy drawn up by her predecessor Charles Clarke and published in the Government's five-year plan last July.

Under the plans, every primary and secondary school will be required to provide additional services by 2010. As well as the care options, the "menu of activities" is likely to include music tuition, dance and drama classes, arts and crafts, first aid and cookery and visits to museums.

It is now 8.45am and Michelle Hodgson, 30, is dropping her daughter Bethany, six, at Skerne Park Primary School. At 3pm, Bethany will go to the after-school club until her mum, a receptionist at a doctor's surgery in Darlington, can collect her at 5.45pm. While she is waiting for her mum, Bethany will be able to cook bread, pizza or quiche and take part in sport or painting and drawing.

"I can't afford not to go to work and without these facilities I'd be stuck," says Michelle. "Some nurseries do a school pick-up but it costs between £2 and £3.50 and child care after that would be about £15. Here it costs £6 for after-school so it makes a big difference.

"She goes four evenings a week and it is good that she can be with people she knows and trusts in a safe environment. She also goes to the out-of-school club during the holidays which costs £16 per day."

A few minutes later, Deborah Simpson arrives with her six-year-old daughter Emily. Deborah drops her daughter off at school every morning before heading off to her full-time administration job at a local engineering firm.

"My work is pretty good, so I can drop her off in the morning," says Deborah, 36. "She then goes to the after-school club a few times a month, if my husband's working and my sister cannot pick her up.

"It's great that it's close to the school. If we didn't have it I don't know what we would do."

Wraparound care at Skerne Park is also offered to parents of under-fives. Like the out-of-school facilities for older children, this service is generally a cheaper option than private nurseries or childminders.

At the childcare centre for under-fives, housed in a temporary classroom near the nursery school, the breakfast dishes have been cleared away and the children are settling down to some "free play" such as drawing and playing with their toys. The club can take up to six babies and 14 children aged between two and five-years-old, with full day care for under twos for £24 per day or £22 for aged two and over. The prices vary because of the higher staffing levels needed for younger children.

Many of the youngsters will go across to the nursery in the morning or afternoon and spend the rest of the time in childcare. At midday the tables come out for lunch, complete with cotton tablecloths.

"It's all freshly prepared food - they had chilli con carne and rice yesterday," says Marjory Knowles, the community economic development manager for the Skerne Park Community Association. "It's like a little family."

Family is an important word to the people who work across the school spectrum. Many of the staff remember the parents coming to the school as youngsters. But when the parents were children, their mums either stayed at home or there was a greater input in childcare from grandparents. As society has changed, so has the need for care outside of school hours.

"I think there's still a lot of informal childcare that goes on, but a lot of grandparents now have got lives of their own and are working themselves," says Marjory. "People are living a lot longer, and that has a knock-on effect."

Carol Davies, foundation coordinator of the nursery and reception classes, agrees and adds: "A lot of parents want to be able to carry on a career, especially if they left work to have a baby, and the hours that they work are not school hours. The children that I see (who have used wraparound care) are very well adjusted and are very quick to settle into nursery."

The extended hours have also seen a better working relationship with Skerne Park's nearby secondary school, Hummersknott School and Language College. Already there is a homework club, where pupils from Hummersknott spend time with Year Six pupils at Skerne Park, which helps alleviate the fear of moving up to "big school".

There are also other bonuses to wraparound care for the people who work within it. It has meant better training and a more structured career progression within the framework, with new opportunities springing up, such as in management.

While teachers will be expected to have some input in the extended hours scheme, the Government has made it clear it does not expect them to be involved in childcare or in managing extended services. Teaching unions have cautiously welcomed the plans, but the Tories and Liberal Democrats have raised concerns about funding for the proposals.

The North-East will receive £21m out of the £680m allocated over the next three years. The allocation will mean about £30,000 for a typical primary school and £50,000 for a secondary. But, just as with many childcare options already available at schools, money will also be raised by a charging policy for care. The opposition parties, however, fear the operating costs for extended hours may be much higher.

But there is no doubt that the wraparound care offered at Skerne has made a difference to the parents and children, and will continue to do so.

"It should make the community more economically stable," says Marjory. "The fact that mothers are going to work gives them self-esteem and confidence, and the fact that they can leave their children in a caring environment will give them peace of mind."