We tend to eat our evening meal on the sofa, more often than not in front of the news on C4+1. Tonight, it was quarter to nine before we sat down, after a late night at work and a volunteers’ meeting.
I caught a feature on a survey of staff in the education sector by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers which, the intro suggested, had found a generation of “ghost kids”: exhausted and damaged by their parents’ long working hours and their own resultant long days.
I went off afterwards and looked up the actual report. In fact, the impact of longer working hours is just one of the many factors which staff identify as having a potentially detrimental effect on the quality of time children spend out of school hours. Increased use of technology is right up there with time away from the family home, as is the change in family dynamics over the past two decades. There were also very positive opinions on the beneficial effects of wraparound childcare, especially for children with a background of deprivation: providing meals, warmth and safety where they might be in short supply at home.
That wasn’t the tone of the Ch4 piece, though. There was a discussion between Mary Bousted, Chair of the ATL, and Laurie Penny, and although both were clear that the survey should not be another stick with which to beat parents, the editorial steer of the entire piece was essentially to say that it was accusing parents of harming their children. Mary Bousted stated categorically that many parents have little choice about whether to work full-time and use wrap-around childcare, and yet the presenter repeatedly suggested that the report was “unhelpful”, sending a hurtful message to working parents.
It is just so depressing that what is actually quite a thought-provoking study, looking at the opinions of professionals who work with children and young people, on how a wide range of changes in our society affect them, was used in this way; piling on the guilt, pressure and resentment.
Nothing in the report said that childcare is intrinsically detrimental. Nothing said that parents, simply by working, were in any way harming their children. Surely we’re past those arguments now anyway, aren’t we? The report and the discussion explicitly pointed, instead, to the financial and other pressures which effectively make many families’ choices for them and which shape the environment in which children are growing up.
It goes without saying that parents – by which, really, I mean mothers – are used to our lives, choices and circumstances being judged and that we are defensive when we perceive criticism. But there is more at stake here than our feelings. It should be possible to acknowledge that we are doing the best we can; more, it should be possible to be genuinely happy with our personal decisions and choices, while still being able to look at the wider picture.
There is an increasing political consensus that schools should extend their opening times: longer days, shorter holidays. The rationale seems to be that this will raise standards at the same time as helping working parents. Perhaps it will. I suspect that we’ll all find out soon enough anyway. What it will achieve is to formally shift the presumption of where a child spends the majority of its time. If schools are set up to accommodate attendance 10 hours a day for 45 weeks of the year, then parents will be freed from the burden (in terms of both logistics and guilt) of fitting children around their job; the friction of being the rope in a tug of war between two competing needs. It’s undeniably tough to reconcile work and childcare, but I would argue that most parents don’t want the problem solved by having the majority of their children’s waking hours effectively outsourced.
I think that schools undoubtedly should offer high quality, highly subsidised wraparound provision for children whose parents can’t be at the school gates at either end of the learning day. But I also think that parents who want to reduce or compress their working patterns to allow them to spend time with their children and to allow their children to spend time away from school should be supported in doing so, and those aims acknowledged as worthwhile. What price flexible working requests when childcare is, nominally at least, no longer an issue? How will children’s needs be best met?
We should be able to have this debate without it being framed as an attack on parents who work or turned into an ideological argument about whether childcare is intrinsically A Bad Thing. We should be able to step back from the personal, and instead look at where “helping” working parents could logically end up – and whether it’s something many of us would really consider to be an improvement.