It has long been the case that education and schooling sat in one corner whilst childcare, whether pre-school for babies and toddlers or after school and holiday care, sat in another, with parents responsible for finding, organising and, crucially, paying for the latter. Such childcare was and is currently provided by a combination of sources; grandparents, nannies, childminders, nurseries, after school clubs, breakfast clubs etc. That schools typically end at 3pm is a nightmare for working parents whilst the cost of pre-school childcare is often so prohibitive that many working mums choose not to return to work as the financial equation does not add up.
That was then, this is now. The Conservative party is proposing a shake up to the old traditional system and will set out in its manifesto for the next general election its plans to coordinate the school day with wrap around childcare provided on the school premises until early evening with childminders taking over from then on if necessary. Schools will be able to open for 9/10 hours per day offering breakfast clubs and after school care in the form of extra-curricular; sports, scouts, drama, homework sessions etc. In addition, schools will be encouraged to provide nursery care within the school environment for children from 2 years and up. Currently 30% of schools have nursery care but by allowing schools to extend the services that they can provide, the Conservative party hopes to reduce the cost for nursery care as a result of nurseries sharing existing buildings and administrative infrastructure.
Speaking at an event hosted by parent networking forum, Citymothers / Cityfathers (http://www.citymothers.co.uk/) yesterday, Elizabeth Truss MP, education minister, acknowledged that parenting and trying to combine a working life with that of a family life was becoming increasingly difficult. Working mothers on average spend 97 minutes with their children per day whilst fathers spend only 30 minutes (an improvement from 1974 when the average was 5 minutes per day!). The attendees at the Citymothers/ Cityfathers event were all professional parents working in the City, typically bankers, lawyers or parents working in the financial services who typically will be expected by their employers to work long hours and who are afflicted by a persistent culture of presenteeism . Yes they may in general be paid more than the average working parent in the UK but the cost of childcare and the difficulties in juggling school and childcare is a problem which affects them just as much as anyone else. For them, therefore, just as for any other working parents, Elizabeth Truss’ comment that “We’re determined to make schools become institutions that work better with modern life – that prepare children for all the challenges of the modern world, and support and help family life- not necessarily for extra lessons – but for a safe, calm place to do homework, or to go over classes which you didn’t get the first time round” will give some hope that the Government understands the nightmare that combining schools and childcare, as well as work and family life entails.
There will always be the argument that children need time at home with their parents after school or that increasing the school day will increase the pressure on our children and unnecessarily tire them out but the reality is times are changing and increasingly both mothers and fathers are working and want to / need to work. In addition, our education standards are falling compared to other countries within the OECD. Figures show that just under a third (32%) of disadvantaged white British children got at least five C grades at GCSE, including English and maths last year, compared with 61.5% of poor children from an Indian background and 76.8% of poor children from a Chinese background.
An education select committee published a report today that stated that white British students from poorer families spend fewer evenings per week doing their homework than those from other ethnic backgrounds or children from less-disadvantaged families, and are more likely to be absent from school. Increasing the school day to ensure that children do their homework and get the benefit from “clubs like debating, cadets, orchestras, sport and drama, for volunteering or Duke of Edinburgh or careers talks from employers” whilst also providing much needed childcare for parents allowing them to work a full day can only be seen as positive initiative for parents and children. The devil however is in the detail. Elizabeth Truss, when questioned as to whether the provision of extended days by schools would be mandatory, stated that there would be no obligation on parents to take advantage of these longer hours. Query then whether the families that this initiative is targeted at and would most benefit would actually make use of it. Plus and critically, there is no information as to whether such extra-curricular activities would be free or what parents would be charged. Currently 64% of all English primary schools provide access to before school care, 70% provide access to after-school care and 19% provide access to holiday care. These currently charge parents for after school care whilst extra-curricular activities such as athletics are often free.
Extended school days have long been common within independent schools so allowing it to be universal for all while ensuring it is of good quality and cost-effective (these elements are key) for schools and parents alike could help resolve the school / childcare nightmare for all working parents, whether they work in the City or not and could help provide a universal, streamlined education and childcare system in the UK.