The network for women whose personal and work life matter to them in equal measure.


How to handle the work-school balance by Anne McElvoy

No Comments

Published by: Dutyfy

23rd September 2013

An interesting piece in the Evening Standard by Anne McElvoy :

Are you a stranger to the school run? Have you ever made it to the annual play? As children settle back into class, Anne McElvoy reports from the frontline of working parenthood

Before I had children, I used to worry about the work-life balance. Where was the relaxation, the time for introspective strolls, the “us” time everyone tells you to preserve to keep a relationship fresh and your head sane?

All this now seems like wanton luxury. If you have children and work — whether from home or in the office — you are most likely preoccupied by something else: the work-school balance.

It starts the moment you drop your first tot off at nursery and hear that harrowing wail of abandonment. Should you a) return to settle the little thing in the Amazonian play den? Or b) race like the clappers to hit your 9.30 meeting?
The advice of one of my previous female bosses was simply never to take your child to a first day anywhere — it only encouraged this kind of dilemma. My emotional sense says this is wrong. My rational sense says it’s right and that a working mother cannot kid herself that she can be in two places at once, doing neither task properly.

From nursery you move through the primary school years. What started as a reasonable emphasis on health and safety ends up with you being summoned every time a child has bumped its head or feels mysteriously sick at the start of a maths lesson.
Back home, with a suddenly recovered youngster, you may wonder whether the school might just have waited half an hour and prescribed a glass of water and an improving book.

State schools, in my experience, are better at toughing it out. Private schools dwell in a state of terror that a rogue virus will spread through the place. Indeed, I know one woman who became so fed-up with requests from her children’s various posh schools to appear in person on certain days that she made her children’s nanny an official guardian, legally able to do the job for her.

Settling two children into secondary schools, I had lived in hope that a degree of separation between career and school life might be restored. You think? This is the period when the GCSE panic and hover-parenting get going in earnest.

“Didn’t see you at the parents’ introductory evening,” texts a friend. To which I may hanker to reply: “That is because my child goes to school, not me.” Instead, we support-group refuseniks just hone our guilt while working the late shift.

I know many people rather enjoy a vicarious second bite at schooling. Parenting is a diverse affair and produces as many tendencies and splinter groups as the Occupy movement.
I would describe myself as being at the tougher end of the range when it comes to work-school balance. I don’t do sports days because they take ages and the fun is in boasting about the results and near misses after school (sneakily, I do get a friend to video the three-legged race).

Carol services and the odd early morning assembly are good ideas because they are time-efficient ways to stay in touch with classroom life without being dominated by it. I like email contact with teachers and don’t understand why schools offer so little of it, rather than the general experience of phoning a switchboard only to get five minutes on hold of Coldplay, a receptionist who can’t spell your child’s name and the news that they don’t know if Mr Wilson is in today.

Some parents take an entirely different view, namely that the more contact they can have with school the better. They like quiz nights, sponsored cycle rides and are on first- name terms with the admin staff. But for many working parents this is asking too much. Worse still, the expectation, however coded, is that it must be possible for the mother to attend, whereas excuses are accepted for fathers as natural.

Modern London’s dawn-to-dusk professional culture brooks no such distinctions. Consider the British school day. It ends abruptly just at the time when deadlines have to be met, calls returned before the lull of the early evening and bosses suddenly loom chasing up the project you discussed in the morning. This is fine if you can afford a reliable childminder to pick up the children and generally stimulate and care for them until a parent arrives home. Otherwise, the 4pm-6pm gap is a troublesome one.
Having followed education policy for a good decade, one of the elusive promises I have heard over and over again is the “wraparound” school day. Finding reliable places for children to have a snack and do their homework after school in London, however, is like hunting the Snark.

A quick audit of what is available brings up some excellent, reasonably priced outfits such as Kids City and some boroughs which have made a priority of “extended services”. I remember the launch of this idea by Labour’s  Ruth Kelly in 2005. Eight years on, an attempt to find out how much is happening in practice runs up against one of those not-quite-running government websites, which doesn’t actually provide the data.

The broader difficulty with the school system is that the UK has a pretty high level of female employment and is trying to raise this further. But it doesn’t, for instance, have an arrangement such as Denmark’s, where school ends early but there are planned activities and homework clubs where children are safe until their parents return from work.

Ah yes, you might well object, but what about the child’s interests? There has been recent public debate about the starting age for school, in which many people cited the tendency of Scandinavian and other countries to start formal school later. This omits the fact that nursery provision in the Nordic countries is often provided much closer to the workplace than in Britain and is actually much more like what we would call school than kindergarten.

Having compared a lot of foreign school systems, I can only conclude that it matters a lot less whether we call something a school, a kindergarten or a nursery, but that it matters a lot in terms of economic outcomes, children’s development and wellbeing how we address the work-school balance.

A few years ago The Economist published a piece on why this matters.“Social arrangements,” it said, “have not caught up with economic changes. Many children have paid a price for the rise of the two-income household. Many women — and, indeed, many men — feel they are caught in an ever-tightening tangle of commitments. If the empowerment of women was one of the great changes of the past 50 years, dealing with its social consequences will be one of the great challenges of the next 50.”

To this, the fraught London family dealing with long commutes and schools that close the gates at 4pm sharp might wearily reply: “Tell me about it.” But until these issues are at the forefront of policy-makers’ minds, they tend not to get tackled.

As the new term beds in I receive an email from a colleague whose first child has started school. She has been asked to attend the parents’ disco, sit on the parents’ council and and to be available for the next few weeks in case her child isn’t settling. I reply: “Don’t worry about it.” She might as well get used to the first rule of the work-school imbalance: you are supposed to be in two places at once. Easy as that.

The Standard is hosting a major public debate, The Future of London Schools, on the evening of Tuesday, October 8. More information at standardevents.co.uk/education


Published by:
Dutyfy is a network for women who want to make space for personal goals, such as motherhood, volunteering and philanthropy, alongside and in partnership with their career. Join the conversation as we strive to re-define ‘normal’, and challenge the assumptions that prescribe our choices and dictate how we see ourselves. Together let’s explore a path that recognises and values all aspects of a life’s ambition.

Leave a Reply

You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

By submitting a comment here you grant Dutyfy a perpetual license to reproduce your words and name/web site in attribution. Inappropriate or irrelevant comments will be removed at an admin's discretion.