26 September 2023

Building family-friendly schools

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Georgie Dent* says while children at school from 9am-6pm isn’t the answer, having properly funded before and after school care and activities is essential.

On Monday I shared an article on LinkedIn that discussed whether school hours are sexist and proposed extending the hours children can be at school til 6pm to accommodate the juggle parents face.

The 173 words I wrote alongside that article sparked more than 2000 reactions, elicited more than 220 comments and has been shared more than 60 times.

This is what I wrote:

There’s no doubt that school hours from 9am-3pm, with 12 weeks of school holidays, are almost impossible to mesh with paid work.

How to make schools more family-friendly is an important conversation to have.

The reality is even in many two-parents households two incomes are necessary to just get by and provide for housing and feeding a family.

In single-parent households, a parent being able to combine paid work with school hours isn’t a luxury add-on – it’s a necessity.

But fitting that between 9-3 and school holidays is an impossible game of Tetris that no amount of time management can overcome.

Creating the necessary ecosystem for parents to reasonably combine caring for their children, with being able to financially provide for their family, means looking at how workplaces and schools – in addition to public policy settings – impact families.

It’s clear that teachers are – like early childhood educators – absolutely at capacity.

No conversation about extending school hours can be premised on teachers doing more.

But having properly funded before and after school care and activities is a conversation we need to have.

The discussion this provoked was fascinating.

Despite differences in perspectives, there was a remarkable level of consensus around a few points that are worth highlighting.

First, the extent to which the status quo for families isn’t working.

Almost every commenter observed, in some way, that both children and parents are struggling with free time, space and connection.

The role that workplaces can and must play in supporting families by enabling children to have access to free time and their parents was raised most often.

Many parents in Australia would like to work fewer hours but the extent to which that is possible depends on many variables.

A world in which the 4-day work week is the norm could be a total game changer for working parents, children, families and communities.

It is absolutely critical that workplaces embrace flexibility and truly accommodate the caring responsibilities of their workforce (not limited to parents).

The role workplaces can and should play cannot be overstated.

But that doesn’t discount the need to have a conversation about how flexible and friendly schools are too.

A few comments were premised on the idea that I was suggesting 9am-6pm as regular school hours for children would be the norm.

Children attending school from 9am to 6pm five days a week is not even remotely ideal.

But, having two or three afternoons a week where children can be fed, well-cared for, supported on school grounds until after 5pm at minimal cost would take a lot of pressure off parents and the family unit.

Some commenters observed we already have Outside School Hours Care – which is true for some.

In reality it is not accessible to all families.

Getting a spot is a patchwork lottery.

Changing this so that families who do need OSHC can access and afford it is largely what the original article is about.

There is no one-size-fits-all in the jigsaw puzzle of work, care and home for families.

But there’s no denying with the status quo – in schools & workplaces – many children, parents, families are up against it.

And that costs children as much as it costs parents.

The needs of children and parents are, in many ways, inextricably linked.

For parents to be able to nurture and support their children in the early years, they themselves need to be supported.

The health and wellbeing of parents is deeply connected to the health and wellbeing of children, particularly in the formative early years.

Whether it’s enough paid parental leave to recover from childbirth, bond with a newborn, support siblings through the transition and enjoy the baby bubble, access to child & family health services, early education and care, access to a workplace that is accommodating – all of these “supports” for parents are actually critical supports for children too.

The needs of children & parents are not mutually exclusive.

There’s absolutely no doubt that our systems & policies need to shift to give parents the ability to give their children what they need.

That’s why we campaign at The Parenthood for the reforms we do.

Earning an income to financially provide for a family isn’t a luxury.

In the vast majority of households it’s a necessity & it’s made much harder by policies, workplaces & schools still set up for an arrangement where one parent works full-time & one parent stays home full-time, which no longer prevails.

The tension between idealism and pragmatism is real.

If we lived in a world in which the 4 day working week prevailed, where all employers were truly supportive of caregiving responsibilities, where all schools had quality, inclusive OSCH facilities and parents were able to readily give their children the quality family time they need while also being in a position to financially provide for the children – talking about family-friendly schools might not matter.

But we are a long way from that ideal – and we won’t get any closer to it without being flexible, adaptive, pragmatic and doing many things all at once.

*Georgie Dent is a journalist, editor, author & passionate advocate for gender equality. The former lawyer is a regular media commentator, public speaker, MC & the contributing editor of Women’s Agenda.

This article first appeared at womensagenda.com.au

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