Summer holidays can be a difficult and expensive time for working parents who have to find someone to look after their young children. Karen Stephen looks at the problem and what solutions are on offer in Bolton.

THE sound of the school bell tolling the summer holidays is sweet music to the ears of most children. However, it has a slightly different ring to their parents. Because, for many, the long summer sabbatical means money. And lots of it -- £1,200 per child, in fact.

According to the Abbey National, working parents with two young children could be as much as £2,400 worse off during the six-week summer break.

So, while our offspring delight at the long days of freedom ahead, mums and dads will be totting up the expense of juggling full-time jobs with childcare. It is estimated that a fifth of working mothers will spend up to £100 a week on such arrangements.

But what are the alternatives? Megan Pacey, senior policy officer at Daycare Trust, says: "The main point is to plan as far in advance as possible.

"It is important for parents to feel secure leaving their children, but it must also suit the child's needs. After all, the summer holidays are one of the best things about being young."

Enter the relatives. Alternating childcare duties between extended family members can certainly ease some of the financial burden, and also gives children the perfect opportunity to spend some time with grandparents or other relatives.

However, if relying on close friends or family is not an option, then forward planning is a must.

Diane Whittingham is a mother of two who lives in Kearsley. She works part-time and admits that finding appropriate, well-priced childcare is "a nightmare". Diane explains: "My sons are 10 and 13 and they are looking for more sophisticated activities -- they are too old for many of the summer school type clubs.

"There are many brilliant schemes in the town," says Diane, "but I know my two sons would prefer something more 'centre-based', perhaps with optional day trips."

Megan Pacey also advises asking employers well in advance about leave during the summer break, as this is usually the most popular time for staff to take holidays.

She also points out that some couples take time off separately to cover the break. However, this can result in them not being able to enjoy holiday time together.

Diane Whittingham also makes the valid point that holiday childcare is difficult to track down, as well as being on the expensive side.

"I think there should be a central telephone number which provides information on every club and scheme in the area," she says. "It would certainly take away the headache for many parents and make summer holidays a whole lot easier."

A spokesman for leisure centres in the borough says: "The council are planning just that -- a number to ring for a bank of information.

"By the end of this year we will have a call centre in place where one telephone number will be able to deliver relevant information to callers."

Asif Varli runs School Shuttle, a school holiday club that operates from five centres throughout Bolton.

Asif explains: "There are two types of programme on offer -- one revolves around arts, crafts and days out while the other focuses on sport."

Asif stressed that all the staff are registered child carers, qualified sports development workers and are strictly police vetted.

He added: "All our schemes are Ofsted registered."

Bolton Leisure Services offer a range of activities during the summer. Excel, in Horwich, offers activities for five to 14-year-olds, including nature walks, arts and crafts and optional trips out (extra charge). Early booking is recommended.

Some schools also offer summer groups.

What parents should check

Are staff and volunteers suitable to work with children? They should go through a thorough recruitment process which includes interviews and police checks.

Is there a written code of behaviour? All organisations should have one, outlining good practice.

How does the organisation manage staff and volunteers? There should be someone in charge to supervise.

Do they offer regular training? All workers, apart from skills training, should have training in child protection, health and safety.

Information from Have Fun and the Be Safe NSPCC guide are available from various shops nationwide