Like many parents of four-year-olds right now, I’m preparing for the big move to primary school this September. Our new school is doing a great job of easing the transition from nursery for our son; but as full-time working parents the difference between nursery and school is deeply stressful.
Nursery is run for working parents: open 8-6, three meals a day provided, flexible arrival and departure time, and one itemised monthly bill. School is very different: closed 14 weeks of the year, and finishing around 3pm the other 38. A whole mini-industry of breakfast clubs, after-school clubs, holiday clubs and summer schools has grown up to fill the gap for families who can’t have an adult at home so much of the time. Each one has its own waiting list, hours, costs, payment methods and reputation for quality … or not. Even school dinners are paid for separately. With less than 2 months to go, we’ve a lot of arrangements still to sort out.
The launch of the Public Services White Paper this week, and the suggestion of private organisations providing state-funded services, has caused a number of my friends to fume about “privatising schools and hospitals”. I can’t help noting that in moving from a partially state-funded private nursery to an entirely state-provided school, I’m getting a worse service, at greater cost to the taxpayer.
We aren’t living in the 19th century, with extra farm labour needed in the summer. We’re in the 21st century where both parents may go out to work, and a quarter of families are headed by a single parent. What if the state school system was designed for parents who are also employees?
A starting point would be bringing the organisation of year-round childcare into the school, and offering parents a single point of contact for the administration of before-school, after-school and holidays. The ‘core hours’ concept could be usefully borrowed from business, where core (i.e. the traditional state-funded academic year) remains the default, but a simple application for non-core hours is available for those parents who need it, with a unified monthly bill (even better if it can include school dinners!)
A more radical change would be to allow schools to change when they ran their core hours to suit their local community. The state would still pay for 33 hours 38 weeks of the year, but a school could adapt to local needs. For example, in a community with highly seasonal work, the school could match the state-funded provision of childcare/education with the peak work season, allowing more parents to take up seasonal work.
Schools are a vital part of local communities but too often seem to be run on the assumption that every child has a parent available during the working day. How do we get to a place where all parents, even those who go out to work, are included in the community?