No choice but long hours of childcare

16 Apr

Sun up to sun downAnother day, another study designed, it seems, to pile more guilt and ‘grass is greener’ urges onto working parents.

This Australian study says that children in pre-school daycare for long periods of time may fall behind educationally. The definition of ‘long periods of time’ is 21 hours a week, or more.

Like many working parents, M and I had absolutely no choice. On average, L1 was in pre-school nursery from 7.20am to 6.50pm four days a week, and sometimes five. I know how long that is in total because when we were planning what to do when I went back to work after mat leave I worked it out and sat down and cried.

Easy, perhaps, to blame this time in nursery on our decision to move just outside London zone 6 while working in Central London. This difficult call was made so we could be closer to my family, because we were lucky enough that our unavoidable absence during the working week could be mitigated to an extent by their proximity; and so we could live in a small community and hopefully make close connections which enabled our children – or child, since at the time it was only L1 – to have an extended network within that community to feel part of even though we weren’t around as much as we would have liked. But no, this distance is not to blame: when we lived in Zone 3, on the efficient and frequent (not being ironic here) Victoria line, we only ‘gained’ 45 minutes a day additional time with L1, most of which was eaten up by the drive between nursery and home, which was significantly longer than the one we had when we moved to Kent.

What was to blame was the absolute requirement, no, necessity, for us both to work full-time, and to work full-time in Central London because of the industries and career paths in which we had become entrenched. Retrain? Without a cushion of savings (and where, really, would they come from?) and without either education or personal skills for other career paths, this was neither straightforward nor practical. I know this since I investigated retraining as virtually anything that I thought I might have a chance at which could provide an improved amount of time with my girl, but found that no way would I be capable, would I be happy, or would anyone have me doing it – any combination of the list. And at the end of the day, since I had to earn, I needed to work in a field where I was most likely to be employed. So standard working hours it was.

I return, therefore, to one of my favoured themes. If this study is right – and I wouldn’t know, the Ls are who they are having had the amount of (excellent, high quality) childcare they’ve had, I can’t tell from my own statistically insignificant sample if they’re more or less able and achieving at school than they would have been had they been at home more – because they weren’t – then the only way to deal with it is going to be a sea change in attitudes towards and the feasibility of flexible working. And support will be needed for employers as well as employees in order for this to become a reality. Having sat in duality as an employer and an employee I know full well that businesses will need help to thrive in a new way of working just as much as employees will.

And the question, will it ever happen? I don’t think I want to tackle that, as I’m deeply cynical about whether those ‘in charge’ care enough about this issue to ensure it does. But my final thought is this. At the same time that this news was released I saw a Tweet saying that Finland tops global education tables and children start school way later than ours and go for shorter days. Having just returned from Helsinki I would argue that this isn’t just because of the education itself but is due to a variety of ‘quality of life’ factors. It isn’t education, daycare, or any of that which we need to address in a vacuum, its surely the importance those in charge of our country place on how we nurture the next generation that has to change.

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