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Dublin: 8°C Wednesday 20 October 2021

Opinion: Early school pick-up times mean mums can't commute anywhere but back to the kitchen

To encourage more women back to work perhaps it’s time to examine school finishing times, writes Mary McCarthy.

Mary McCarthy Freelance journalist

IF THE GOVERNMENT wants to nudge more women back to work it could make one change that will help a lot of parents out – have all children at primary finish school at the same time. 

All my children will be finishing at the same time next year so I had my last ever early pick-up on Friday. I’m looking forward to how this one extra hour will simplify my life.

The current requirement is a 5 hour and 40 minute day for primary school kids including breaks, roll call and assembly – younger classes are allowed to finish earlier.

At my children’s school, junior and senior infants finish at 1.10pm and the other classes at 2.10pm. Some days you have not scraped the porridge into the bin and you’re back down for pick-up.

If you have to do two pick-ups in the day, the hour in between is spent waiting in a nearby field, dashing to the shops or going home for a (very) quick breather.

What difference would that hour make?

Firstly, an extra hour makes a part-time job doable for many.

I have conversations all the time with women who tell me that only when they have a later pick-up will it be feasible to work. At the moment they don’t have time to commute anywhere but back to the kitchen.

Part-time work is still the domain of women with CSO figures showing only 9% of men work part-time while 29% of women do. This earlier finishing school time is affecting women most.

Female participation in the workforce in Ireland is 59.5%, below the EU average of 61.4%, with working parents spending 28% of their earnings on childcare compared to the EU average of 12%.

The new National Childcare Scheme (NSC), to be introduced in October, is aiming to tackle these issues, and will enable for the first time some families to be entitled to subsidies which will reduce their costs.

Every parent knows that child care is not just about cost. For many, the disruption to the child’s day and how streamlined the process is for family life is given equal, if not more, weight when deciding whether to work or not.

A longer day at primary for younger kids would also benefit those hard-pressed stay-at-home parents, who often also have younger children to look after, as the NCS requires parents to be working or studying to avail of the higher subsidies.

Younger kids ready for more

But think of the children. Are they not wrecked after 4 hours 40 minutes in school, including breaks? And what about the teachers?

The kids I see every day unleashed at lunchtime have tonnes of energy to burn.

They are a different breed to past junior and senior infants.

When I started primary in 1981 most kids were four and had not gone to play school so it made sense to have a reduced day as the shock would have been immense.

Cut to today’s junior infants who have had two years of the Early Childcare and Education (ECCE) and are more likely to be five – only 23% of children starting last year were four years old. This trend is set to accelerate as the effects of the recently extended ECCE set in.

Kids start the scheme the year they turn three, so most children are five starting junior infants.

Recently I had a senior infants child hand me back a party bag saying he was not allowed cheap plastic that ruins the environment – I think they are well able for a longer day.

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Mums have more on their plates now

In the 1981 census, 55% of women over the age of 15 classed their occupation as looking after the home/family.

So for the mums of yesteryear, an earlier pick-up may not have made much difference compared to the ‘on the run’ parents of today who are trying to fit everything in and look professional to boot.

It can be harder to be a stay-at-home parent today because there is a lot more supervision and planning of playdates involved.

When I was five I would arrive at my neighbour’s door unannounced but this is just not conceivable nowadays.

Teachers work hard, and I’d imagine teaching the younger classes is intense so perhaps a longer break in the morning of 30 minutes would let the younger kids let off steam so they can concentrate better.

This is currently 10 minutes and the kids are supposed to vacate the classroom; not much time to eat a banana and have a decent run around. 

Or perhaps more music? The current primary school curriculum allows just one hour per week and younger kids love to sing.

The profile of the child starting primary school today and the role of parents is a lot different to that in the past – so why stick to the old rules?

And for those parents staying at home a slightly longer school day will take the stress out of managing a home.

If the government really wants to bring participation in the workforce of Irish women to the EU average, perhaps it’s time to examine the school finishing times for younger classes.

Mary McCarthy is a freelance journalist and self-described desperate housewife. 

About the author:

Mary McCarthy  /  Freelance journalist

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