There’s one conversation all the primary-school parents around me are having right now.
“Why do schools still think it’s 1950?”
You know, those days Tony Abbott longs for when everyone had a mother in a pinny waiting at home with freshly-baked cookies. When every household had two (straight) parents and dinner was always on the table when a man got home, Goddammit.
A time before “working families” and “career women” and “after care” and “Deliveroo”.
Of course, those times never really existed. Working-class women have always worked, single-parent families have always existed, not everyone was ever straight and statistics show that, even in the good old days, 48.7 per cent of women could not bake a biscuit if their lives depended on it*.
But still, it was the conversation I was having over and over in a school yard last Thursday, when my youngest started kindy. At 10am.
Two things to note in that sentence – Thursday. And 10am.
Are school holidays too long? Listen to Holly and Ben Fordham take it on on the This Glorious Mess podcast:
My friend Lisa, a single, working mum who, like us, already has a child at the same school, was looking anxious in the playground. She wants to be there on the morning her baby starts school (of course she does, we all do) but the first day of kindy is 10am-2pm and her company has a big project launching this week. She’s meant to be in a crucial meeting at 10.30am.
“Come on,” she’s saying, as the teachers gently herd kids in over-sized shirts and enormous backpacks into wiggly lines. There’s no way she’s leaving before she waves her nervous daughter up the steps, but seriously, her boss is losing patience. After all, there’s just been six weeks of juggling holiday care and leaving early and starting late and smuggling kids into offices to play quietly on iPads.
Lisa knows she’s going to be running into that meeting 10 minutes late, flustered and on the back-foot, despite being up last night preparing. Feeling the judgement of the other people in the room. And worrying about how her daughter’s going in that unfamiliar classroom.
Welcome to the life of a working parent, yes? Yes. But does it have to be this hard?
“Two pm pick-up is bullsh*t,” another friend, Lucy was saying, as I nodded furiously. “It’s not like Jake hasn’t been in daycare for two years. He can handle 3pm, even 5pm!”
It’s true. For parents who have already arranged pick-ups or after-care around 3pm, a 2pm finish for a significant period of time cuts their working ability off at the knees.
The 2pm finish is to 'ease' kids into school life. But the vast majority - 89 per cent in fact - of Australian kids now go to some sort of long-day or preschool care before they start school. That is a statistic to be celebrated - as recent research suggests that preschool education is so crucial to a child's developmental success that it should be mandatory for four-year-olds.
But it's also a statistic that suggests this is not the first time the majority of children have been separated from their primary carer for large swathes of the day.
Okay, okay, I hear you. My fellow school parents and I sound like grinches. And we do. Because for the last two weeks these are the conversations we've been having:
"These school holidays are too long. The excitement of Christmas seems like a year ago. HOW ARE THEY NOT BACK YET?"
"I feel guilty about having them in five-days of vacation care, they feel like they're way too old to go now, but I'm out of holidays and there's no way I'm leaving them home alone."
"My partner and I could only overlap our holidays by four days. I feel like I haven't seen her for weeks."
"How is it possible that kindy starts on a Thursday? And my big kid goes back on a Tuesday? That's two more days off work, because holiday care is over."
And then there's the more generalised grinchiness about the whole 9am-3pm thing, while many parents work 9am-5pm (at least) or shifts that don't mirror school hours.
"I'd really love to sign Amy up for OzTag but practice is at 4pm and there's no-one to take her there."
"I've tried to organise Fridays from home so I can meet the teacher at least once a week but my boss is worried about my 'output' if he can't see me."
"I lost my before-school care place while I was on maternity leave and now I have to start at 9.30, which has scuppered the promotion I've been working for."
I know, I know, parents with healthy children and jobs that pay are ridiculously privileged, so hand us the world's smallest violin.
And we all know that teachers work much longer hours than the 9am-3pm they have our little darlings and if those were to shift, their conditions would have to change, too.
And yes, somehow between family members (if you're lucky enough to have willing ones nearby), friends on different schedules, paid-care and flexible bosses (God bless you) the vast majority of us it make it work. Even for these first two weeks of 2pm finishes.
But the reality is that the cost of living, especially in capital cities is going up, not down, and parents are only going to have to work more, not less.
It feels inevitable that schools, one day, somehow, are going to need to address the yawning chasm between children's hours of education and parents' hours of paid work.
Will that be a sad day? Perhaps. According to independent studies, the best school system in the world is in Finland, and their school day is typically 9am-2pm. No, we don't know how Finnish parents do it, either.
But right here, right now in Australia, perhaps minimising parental stress and anxiety is as conducive to creating a happy, healthy, learning child as their gentle start to school.
And come on, 10am-2pm is bullsh*t.
* I made-up the biscuit statistic. But it's probably true.
How do you deal with juggling work and school hours?
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