Tag Archives: school

The invisible children

Luckily, I’m past the stage of needing to use the Parent & Child parking spaces at the supermarket. I still play the game of “spot the invisible child”, though: eyes peeled for that strange phenomenon afflicting people who nab a convenient place presumably on the basis of owning a parent, or having once been a child.

There are ripe pickings for “spot the invisible child” in politics, too. On a more serious level which I’m not qualified to discuss, there are severely disadvantaged youngsters, whether through poverty, neglect or unmet special needs, whose plight too often goes unmentioned. On a level that affects me personally, though, along with millions and millions of others, are the children in the current hot topic of “childcare”.

To listen to politicians and most media coverage, you’d be justified in thinking that it’s an issue which applies only to tots. There are endless reams of thinkpieces on the harm or otherwise of paid care for babies and toddlers; endless (and fiendishly complex) policy wrangles around entitlement to free childcare (or is it early years education?) for the 3s-and-unders.

And then, once those same tots hit school age, any suggestion that their wheareabouts outside lesson time might be problematic becomes harder to spot than a babyseat in the back of a souped-up Fiesta  (whose driver couldn’t possibly be expected to walk across the car park to the cashpoint).

Childcare, it seems, is only really something which the powers that be (and the powers that want to be) can conceive as being of concern to parents until their offspring toddle into Reception.

There are occasional salvoes about Breakfast Clubs! and After School! and Holiday Sessions! all with costings and logistical underpinnings which make Labour’s current manifesto woes come across like an excerpt from A Beautiful Mind and which combine to convey the impression that it’s not really that big a problem; that such things are nice-to-haves, rather than vitally necessary for the majority of us needing or wanting to combine work with parenthood.

It goes without saying that childcare costs are prohibitive for many families with very young children, and that this is a significant barrier to many women returning to work after maternity leave. Solving, or at least easing, this, however, is of limited value if the same woman then feels compelled to leave work a few years later when someone needs to be at the school gate at 8.55 and 3.20 each day, or the only holiday clubs are between 9 and 3 and she works 8.30-5, an hour away.

Subsidising her preschooler’s childcare is great, but it’s of little help when she’s then faced with 6 weeks of summer holidays and an eleven year old (thinking of no-one in particular) who can’t be relied upon to find a matching pair of socks, let alone be home by himself for ten hours a day.

Living away from family, I’ve experienced first hand the difference that affordable on-site wraparound care can make. In my case, it has literally been the difference between being able to return to work or not. Being fortunate enough to have an employer who takes the question of work-life balance and family commitments seriously, I’ve likewise learned how flexibility during holidays and illness can make combining work and care responsibilities possible. Even with these advantages, reaching the end of primary school with my eldest feels a bit like falling off a cliff; talking to other parents, I know I’m not alone in this, and yet it never even seems to warrant a mention.

I’ve yet to hear a single politician outline seriously how they’d strive to ensure the advantages of childcare and flexibility I’ve been able to access thus far would be made available to all parents, not just a lucky few.

As for any acknowledgement we’d care at all how things will work at eleven and over? It’s empty space, as far as I can see.

The fact that so many families muddle through due to grandparents on hand, or mothers (and it is almost always mothers) being forced out of work and/or into low paid or local roles shouldn’t be taken as evidence of a system that’s working. Achieving equality in the workplace and assessing the needs of those who need to balance earning and caring responsibilities needs to go well beyond the nappy years.

I remain passionately in favour of families choosing how best to structure their finances and employment to meet their own changing needs, but restricting employment options can’t be a good thing when so many of us will work for 30 or 40 years after our children start school, both on a personal level and in terms of maximising tax and NI intake.

There are not as many opportunities for cute photo ops with winsome toddlers, sure. But there’s definitely a bigger picture to see here.







Quality Family Time

I had a lovely email this morning from Center Parcs. On the subject of loveliness, we have, in fact had some lovely holidays there. My parents in law have very kindly taken us there for a couple of short breaks in the past. And we had a lovely time.

We’ve been back once or twice under our own steam. They are the epitome of the easy family holiday: close at hand, everything laid on, plenty of space for the children to explore without the constraints that they have at home. We’ve always more or less found bargains, never been able to afford the activities, but enjoyed the swimming and the surroundings and the chance to be together. Lovely (you knew I was going to say that, didn’t you?)

They’re also excellent at marketing, and ensuring that the possibility of the next break is always on your mind. On a grey, busy January Friday morning, with various problems hanging over our heads, the email today struck a chord.

Escape to the forest with a Center Parcs short break, choose from a wide range of lodges at one of our five UK Villages.  Enjoy quality time together, from exciting active days or cosy evenings by the fire. A Center Parcs break can be whatever you want it to be – Your family. Your time. Book by February 4th from £279′

I duly clicked through. We could, in fact, have had a midweek break in a 4 bedroom lodge at the end of the month for £279. Excellent value. Unfortunately, we have two school age children and I’m a school governor. Taking them out in term time isn’t possible any more, though in the interests of scrupulous honesty, I should add that we didn’t do it before, either.

No problem, I thought, I’ll look later in the year. Easter, perhaps. A bit more expensive in the middle of the month, but £359 for four nights for five of us is ok. Hang on, though. That’s still term time. In the holidays, two weeks later? Oh. That will be £1349, apparently. For the same property, the same number of nights, the same everything, really (except, presumably, the number of school-age children barrelling around the place.)

Storm in an Emma Bridgewater teacup? Possibly. After all, a Center Parcs holiday even at the cheapest of available prices is beyond many, not a basic human right. Nor can I really blame Center Parcs, who presumably would argue that off-peak prices have always been subsidised by those coming in school holidays, for making additional hay in the Government-sent sunshine of the ban on time out of school in term time.

What grates is that this is just another example of the lip-service paid to the importance of family. Holidays are a luxury, of course they are, but being able to afford some time away together should be a reasonably accessible luxury for most, especially when work outside of the home is being pushed as the only acceptable model for parents.

I do understand the importance of children not missing school and the disruption that lots of absences can cause the classroom teacher. The new ban, though, just transfers much of that disruption and aggro to head teachers, who are put in an adversarial position vis-á-vis parents. It in no way helps families who could only ever take their holidays outside school breaks, for whatever reason. How much more “family friendly” would investigation into anti-competitive practices by holiday companies have been, or an examination of what could be done for work places where parents’ annual leave is restricted such that school holidays create nothing more than a headache of additional childcare.

Holidays should constitute quality family time. Not time together for “Quality” families able to afford it.