We must take a long, hard look at what we mean when we say 'back to school'. Covid-19 highlights a reality that school, for many, has become as much about childminding as it is about education. Can our world of work survive unless our children are in school?
This September, that ambiguity about the role of schools in our lives may end in tears, not just for children but for many working adults too. This precariousness cannot continue. We need to dare to rethink and reimagine childcare in the world of work.
Next Saturday is August 1, the start of that most sumptuous holiday month. For many, it marks the turn of the year as a swelling murmur of back-to-school preparations begin with purchases of new children's school uniforms and books. That reassuring annual pattern may be quite different this year if the education system struggles to open in a post-Covid world.
There will be severe economic consequences if childcare, creches and schools do not fully resume, because of the impact it will have on parents who work during school hours. This concern is reflected by the scale of the Government's recent intervention to provide €75m extra to assist reopening.
It is easy to forget it is barely a century since large numbers of women joined the workforce outside of the farm and home. The reasons and factors that caused this are complex. These are usually explained by the late 19th century changes caused by industrialisation and urbanisation. These forces were then amplified by the loss of mobilised manpower during the two world wars.
Less mentioned, is the 19th century emergence of widespread schooling. The Covid closure of schools has dramatically laid bare its critical role in helping working parents in dual-income households all over the world.
Covid will force us to make new choices. We can resist or try to reduce these choices - or we can be ambitious and try to get ahead of the curve by changing ourselves before circumstances change us.
We are in the middle of many changes currently. It is like a gigantic game of musical chairs. The discovery of a vaccine or an acceptance of new mortality rates may stop all of this turmoil and we will all rush to try to restart our 'old lives' - only to find that too much has already changed to ever go back to the familiar.
We seem to be faced with a choice between business as usual and reimaging our lives.
One option hopes we will all muddle through, and that after a difficult start, our children will once again be cared for by others while we work to sustain our dual-income household lifestyles. In this future we can continue to depend on the support of teachers, friends and grandparents, hoping it will not break down again.
The other option would be to formalise childcare so it is freely available to all at all stages without guilt or cost. In this option, education is fully separated from childcare and 'childcare' is not about creches - it's about all of childhood. The State would guarantee to support the provision of childcare from birth until 16 years of age with children moving between home, school and activities such as play and sport.
This new option would be fantastically expensive and troublesome to set up. To put the expense in context, however, reflect that we will soon be spending nearly a €1bn a year to subsidise complex childcare systems - while teachers' pay remains Ireland's largest payroll. How much more expensive could another option be?
The benefits would be fantastic too, if evidence is to be believed from other countries which provide comprehensive State childcare: child poverty would be reduced; fertility rates would increase; productivity would increase as grandparents remain available for work; employee retention would improve; and parents would advance further and faster in the workforce while quality of life would improve for all - parents, children and teachers.
Many may say, quite reasonably, it could be dangerous to hand over so much of childhood to the State. There will be concerns that recent scandals about conditions in childcare facilities mean parents should be slow to trust giving the very young into the hands of underpaid workers employed by profit-driven operators. Though it is also possible we have been looking through the wrong end of the telescope by trying to start from a position of spending as little as possible.
The lesson of the results of long-term under-investment provide no basis for making decisions about likely future results. A successful businessman recently advised that to achieve big plans, it is important to start big: "Nobody ever won a grand prix by starting small and buying a bicycle."
It is arguable the huge strides made in childcare provision over recent years remain lost in the weeds of details about pay rates and cost recovery. Instead we should have a holistic vision about the place of our children in the whole of our lives, including work.
We should ask whether more imaginative and generous approaches could become multipliers of human happiness, economic productivity and social cohesion? If researchers claim a 13pc return on investment from early high-quality child education, what would happen if we invested a lot in the whole of childhood?
The question might turn out to be how can we afford not to do this?
Imagine a world in which being a parent no longer involved scrabbling to afford a creche and childminder? Imagine no longer spending hours in a car ferrying kids between school, sports, friends, grandparents and home? Imagine having more choices about the when, how, where and who of childcare. Imagine getting on with your own life, with more of childcare being for fulfilment or pleasure and not necessity?
Imagination is a good place to begin to dare to change.
The people who should be thinking most about this are those who are likely to become grandparents in the next decade. Today's 50-year-old woman who is healthy, active and engaged in life is much less like to choose to be there as an unpaid nanny in the way her mother may have been.
Research indicates that, when voting, women are more likely to be more left-wing and interested in social welfare and community- oriented topics than men. It is also noteworthy that voter participation among women increases with age. So it is very probable that there will be significant and growing female support for childcare policies that reduce dependence on middle-aged women whose hands are too often expected to rock cradles.
Changing something as intimate as childcare is very difficult because it may involve allowing a much greater intrusion into the very heart of our lives.
This is something that Ireland may never choose to do - we may choose to stay complicated, sentimental and loving - but let this be by choice, following an honest self-evaluation.
Let it not be the result of a careless, lazy or frightened refusal to honestly ask about what is the best hand to rock the cradle.