parent opinion

MIA FREEDMAN: We need to talk about how our school holiday system is broken.

“Why aren’t people marching in the street?” a girlfriend asks me recently, her voice a strangled mix of despair and disbelief. With her eldest child due to start school next week, she is shocked by what she’s being asked to do and she can’t comprehend why there hasn’t been an uprising by parents.

“How am I meant to hold down my full-time job when Jack’s school day doesn’t start until 9:20am and finishes at 3pm? By the time I get the train into work after dropping him off, I only have a couple of hours before I have to turn around again to pick him up.”

My friend returned to work part-time when her son was 10 months old and worked her way back up to full time by the time he turned three. For the last couple of years, he’d attended a local daycare four days a week and had a regular babysitter on the fifth day.

It was a long daycare so she could drop him off at 8:30am on her way to work and pick him up at 5:30 or 6pm if she was running late. It had cost my friend a fortune and she’d been excited by the prospect of her son starting at the local public school, but now it had dawned on her she was trading one problem for a different one.

I nod sympathetically, blink a few times and try not to laugh. “Welcome to your new life,” I say wryly.

“No, but seriously, how the hell do people do this?” she presses me urgently, grabbing my arm.

“And why did nobody warn me that school is actually impossible to combine with regular work hours? It just never occurred to me until now and I feel like an idiot but I’ve never heard other women complain about it. It’s doing my head in. I don’t know how anyone pulls it off.”

I have no answer to this but I can’t stop thinking about it. Because I’ve had kids at school for so long that I’ve stopped even noticing how broken the system is.

You can listen to Mia’s thoughts on why our school holiday system is broken – and making parents feel like they’re failing – in the video below. Post continues after video.

Video via Mia Freedman

When I say that, I don’t mean the teachers or the individual schools themselves. I’m talking about the whole system, the system of schooling that was designed for a different time, generations ago, when every household had a full-time stay-at-home parent who could accommodate 9-3 school days and endless school holidays, as well as turning up at everything from tuckshop duty to the Easter Hat Parade, Harmony Day, the athletics and swimming carnivals, Open Day, Silly Socks Day, Special Assembly Day and all the other school events that inexplicably happen during work hours.

Quite simply, the math does not work.

Riddle me this:

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  • Parents who work full time outside the home get four weeks of annual leave.
  • And yet their school-aged children get 12-18 weeks of school holidays per year depending on what school they go to.
  • Parents’ workdays are mostly eight hours long. Some even longer.
  • And yet their children’s school days are around six hours. Some even shorter.

So how do we fill the disparity gap of 10 hours a week, every week during term time and 10 entire additional weeks of school holidays throughout the year?  It’s inside this gap that parents will confide in hushed yet anguished tones about how they’re not coping. And it’s into this gap that our sanity, our bank accounts and ultimately the well-being of our families are falling.

This is what I mean when I say the system is broken. Because it’s built on a foundational premise that every school-aged child has one parent or full-time carer (usually a mother) who is at home every day to look after them. And in 2020, how many households tick that box?

Most of us are forced to cobble together a bespoke, complex and prohibitively expensive system of our own held together with a prayer and some blu tak. It’s usually some combination of grandparents (if they’re able and willing), babysitters (if you can find/afford one), before and after school care (if you can nab a rare spot) and holiday camps (all of the above). With the exception of grandparents, all of these options are expensive; some of them shockingly so.

And the only guarantee of this cobbled-together-system is that it will collapse repeatedly and you will be forced to scramble to repair, rebuild and reinvent it, a state of anxiety with which you will become excruciatingly familiar if never in any way comfortable.

At a time when working hours have never been longer, we’ve simultaneously been jammed by societal pressures and expectations that our children must be constantly supervised and entertained. By us. Add to that the fact that there are more single parent households and fewer extended family members living nearby and no wonder so many parents feel like they’re losing their minds.

As I write this, it’s currently day 4,756 of the summer school holidays and I think I speak for many when I say, my spirit is just about broken. Ask any parent of school-age children and they will tell you they are out of ideas, out of money, out of patience, out of their minds trying to find ways to occupy their children’s time. Because they have so much time while parents feel stretched so thin.

Let’s also be honest, the bulk of the emotional labour required in managing this broken system falls to women. Mothers.

And the reason we’re not marching in the street, apart from the fact that we’re too tired and too busy trying to wrangle a slot at after-school care and find a holiday camp our children won’t flatly refuse to attend, is because it hasn’t occurred to us that the system is broken. We feel like our inability to somehow make our lives work is because we are failures. Us personally. When in fact, the system is set up to make us fail.

When I spontaneously decided to have a light-hearted vent about this on Instagram a few days ago, I didn’t realise it would unleash such a viral wave of people in furious agreement. At the time of writing, the video has been viewed tens of thousands of times and there are more than 1,200 comments.

 

View this post on Instagram

 

Ok, I’m losing it. They’re never going to end, these holidays. And the system is broken. Full time working adults get 4 weeks annual leave per year and yet our kids are home for 6-8 weeks just over Summer. Plus all the other school holidays during the year. How does that maths work, no really how? And don’t get me started on 3pm pick up times. The education system is built on the basis of every child having a full time stay-at-home parent but for most families that just isn’t possible. So we feel like we are failing. We feel like we are the broken, faulty ones when it’s actually the system that is not catering to the reality of most parents. Why aren’t people marching in the street? I think it’s because we’re too tired and too busy trying to sort holiday activities and after school pick-ups. Does anyone else feel this way or do I just need a lie down? ???????????????????? UPDATE: I am not for a moment suggesting the responsibility to come up with a solution to this broken system should lie with teachers or that teachers should work more days or longer hours. Teachers, I love you. ❤️❤️ The problem is systemic and so much bigger than any one simple solution.

A post shared by Mia Freedman (@miafreedman) on

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I don’t claim to have a solution or even a proposal for what a solution might be. Helpful, I know.

However, here’s one thing I do know: the answer is not for us to match kids’ school hours to our working ones. They don’t need more formalised school hours. They’re exhausted by the end of each term. And so are teachers.

So, what then?

Americans have even less annual leave than we do (two weeks for full-time workers) and their kids have most of the summer off so their solution is summer camp, where kids as young as six are sent away for a couple of months. Would that work here? I don’t think I want to send my kids away for weeks, let alone months.

I love having my kids around more when they’re on holidays – so before you tell me to be grateful and to just shut up, let me be clear about that. But I also have to go to work so it’s not possible to take weeks off and even if I could, my kids would be bored of me very quickly.

As far as term time goes, perhaps governments need to look at a different model whereby after-school care is provided free of charge in primary school to anyone who wants it and those programs are expanded to be able to accommodate the whole school, not just a select group of kids lucky enough to nab places and have parents who can afford to pay extra.

And maybe those same programs can run during the holidays.

If my post going viral achieves one thing, I want it to be this: we should start having conversations at the highest levels of government and the education system about how we can make a better system, one that accommodates our current world where most parents work outside the home, not the 50s version of family life when Mum was always available to drop-off, pick up and supervise every day of school holidays.

And I also hope that even if things don’t change any time soon, parents will see it’s the system that’s broken and not us. We’re doing our bloody best. And it’s nearly back-to-school time. Just hang on for a few more days.

Feature image: Supplied/@miafreedman.

Do you agree with Mia? Is our school holiday system broken? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below.

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