Staggering school holidays will hurt working parents


#Staggered: join my campaign to keep school holidays unified – David Cameron is wrong

I AM TRYING to “lean in” as much as I can. But if schools stagger their holidays and stretch the breaks throughout the year, as the Prime Minister and the National Association of Head Teachers are proposing, I am going to fall over.

This week David Cameron backed the growing movement to stagger school holidays and half terms so that airlines don’t take advantage and jack up their rates.

Schools,  said the PM, have the “freedom” now to set different term times. “We should encourage a bit of flexibility. Don’t necessarily do everything the same and that I think will help parents.”

Meanwhile, the head teachers are advocating that we shorten the six-week summer holiday and instead have more frequent breaks throughout the year. This will reduce teacher exhaustion and improve children’s learning, they say.

I am all for lower airline ticket costs. I am in favour of flexibility. I am against teacher exhaustion and very pro-children learning.

But in the drive to “help parents”, don’t forget that staggering school holidays means the parents who work are going to be stretched to the point of breaking.

Let’s take this school year. I have three children in two different schools.  I had two different half-term holiday weeks in October. I had four weeks of Christmas holidays. I had a combined four weeks of Easter holidays. February half-term and June half-term were the same at both schools, for which I am thankful. (Last year I had two different half-term weeks as well).

Combined with six weeks of summer break, that’s 18-19 weeks of holiday. That’s 4.5 months that I either have to pay for childcare camps or take time off work myself. And that’s before Cameron’s stagger programme comes into operation. Lower airline costs aside, how is staggering half-term holidays going to help parents?

I don’t think anyone could accuse me of not leaning in (the shorthand for Facebook COO Sheryl Sandburg’s exhortation for women to show leadership and pursue career ambitions as well as their personal goals).

I write this column. I train people in more effective communication. I am executive editor of Hub Culture and chair of the British American Project. However, I also try to limit this work to school hours so that I can also be there for my kids – as many days as I can – from 3:30pm to bedtime.

I have help in the form of a fantastic nanny who works part-time to cover when I can’t be around. But over October and Easter holidays especially, I nearly fell over from leaning in while trying to be present for my kids.

So what is the answer? To begin with, let’s get some people who would bear the brunt of further staggering of half-terms to help answer the question.

While Michael Gove and David Cameron have to pay higher airline tickets, I doubt either of them have to take time off work when their kids have different half-terms, or staggered holidays. There are plenty of part-time working parents like me – men and women – who I reckon would have something useful to say about this.

My mother-in-law, Sarah Searight, led a very successful half-term movement in the 1970s. She and a group of other working mothers got all schools, state and private, in the the UK (with the exception of Eton) to agree on set half-terms for October and June and a recommended date in February.

Of course this was before the advent of Ryanair and EasyJet. This was before Chinese schoolchildren threatened to overtake because of working harder while British kids loll about during their breaks.

Before we rush into a staggered half-term/holiday system, let’s consider who is going to pick up the pieces – working parents, for whom the current system is already broken.

I need to file this before I go on the school run – and I’m lacking a catchy hashtag. Best I can come up with is #Staggered. Anyone with me on this?