School Holidays: Give Us A Break

For me, school holidays are like housework: highly demanding, ever-present and seemingly never done. My problem, in a nutshell, is while I’d be happy to have the kids at home, the demands of my work mean this only sporadically and occasionally possible. Most of the time, I need care. This means that every time those dreaded two weeks draw near, my “to-do” list looks like this.

First, reschedule and otherwise shift as much work as possible away from the period in question. Then, ask my partner what days might be available at his office when the other directors won’t have their kids with them, clients won’t be visiting and he’ll be able to shift his workload around enough to send a few employees home so that he can park our kids in front of computer games and the world wide web for the day. Simultaneously SOS everyone on my “working parents” email contact list to discover if we can coordinate care swaps (of the “I’ll take your older one Friday if you’ll have mine on Monday but only if both of us can make similar arrangements for the younger ones on those days too” – type) or mutual activities (of the “mine will only go to sports camp if your child goes too” – type). Finally, ring up both sets of grandparents and plead for the odd day or three

By the time that final Friday arvo bell rings (one hour earlier than usual, just to add insult to injury) my desktop resembles a war room. Phone ringing, palm pilot synching, incoming e-mail indicator bobbing like a jack in the box, and – as testament to my weeks of effort – a calendar hastily blu-tacked to the wall splattered with victorious blue tics and a measle-rash of red question marks.

Perhaps not surprisingly, I find this process depressing. Not just because of the persistence, eye for detail and logistical ingenuity it entails, but its sheer repetitiveness. It feels like I’ve only just recovered from organising myself for one school holiday, when the next one looms. I also find it frustrating that in spite of my efforts, my children nearly always end up attending programs that are either low quality, exorbitantly expensive or – when things really go pear-shaped – both. And I’m one of the lucky ones: at least I can afford some paid care. A recent study showed that many Australian parents can’t, and are instead forced to take their annual leave at different times to cover the mismatch between the demands of work and those of school breaks.

The truth is that the decision to divide the approximately 11 weeks annual leave to which teachers and students are entitled into three two weeks breaks, and five weeks around Christmas, reeks of 1950s assumptions about parental work patterns that have relevance for families of today.

ABS figures show that around half of families with children under 15 have both parents in the workforce. While many mothers (and a handful of fathers) reduce their hours to reconcile the daily incongruity between school and work hours, part-time work doesn’t solve the problems caused by school holidays. For this, parents need a “term time” clause in their contract. In one UK survey, 38% of women and 32% of men said they did or would use such a clause if it were available to them. With 47% of women and 34% of Australian men rating the freedom not to work during school holidays as important, one might imagine a similarly enthusiastic response here.

Yet many scholars now believe that parents are increasingly interested in changing the world so they can balance work and family, rather than using “special benefits” solutions to reduce the imbalance. In part, this is likely to be because of the negative impact parental use of part-time work, flexi-time and other such arrangements tends to have on their wages, career progression and job security. Instead, parents want institutions – like work and school – to change to better suit them.

How could this be done? My proposal is that for most of the year, school should be a heads down/bums up affair, with breaks of only one week during the spring and autumn. This leaves around 8 weeks for an extended break over the summer which could start before Christmas and run through most of February.

Not only would this approach keep kids out of the classroom during the hottest days of the year, and return to families of lesser means the freedom to holiday together, it would also enable the summer camp business – day and overnight – to develop and thrive.

Such camps would offer high quality care for children at lower costs in part because every year staff, food, insurance and transport need to be organised only once. And, mercifully, only once would also be the number of times parents needing care for their children during the break would need to examine the options, pay their money and make their choice.