There are many good things about the Irish educational system but accommodating family life and working parents ain’t one of them.
What we have caters more for 1950s agricultural Ireland than a society where most parents work outside the home. Yes, our learning hours are slightly higher than the OECD average but these are shoehorned into days that are too short at primary and school terms that are too short at secondary. Tweaking them would make life easier for pupils, parents and, bear with me now … teachers.
First to primary schools, when we talk about a childcare crisis we talk about creches, but if you can secure and afford a place, they are open all year and all day.
When kids hit school age this is when life gets tricky if both parents work. For single parents it’s harder yet. I was reminded of this while chatting to a mother from Ukraine whose child has just joined our school. She was saying how the school was so supportive, the teachers so kind but she was worried about being able to work when the school day ends at 2.10pm.
Last Thursday the kids finished at 11.45am because of in-service training for the teachers and the thought of ad-hoc disruptions like this coming out of nowhere surely stressed her out further.
When I suggested I may know someone who could offer her work she looked panicked and said she could only do part-time because paying for childcare was impossible.
She was curious how I managed. I told her I worked from home, otherwise it would be difficult for me.
My youngest in junior infants is only in school for four hours and 40 minutes a day which means squeezing in a physical commute is not a runner. Sure, even when I did not work I found it hard to manage all the household tasks before the kids arrived home. Working from home has made a short school day easier for many parents but of course many don’t have this luxury. She told me that in Ukraine her child could stay in school till 6pm if needed; there was a homework club, a snack and extracurricular activities.
But at least her children are not junior or senior infants, who break an hour earlier than everyone else. Surely this needs to go? Especially given that all children do at least their Early Childhood Care and Education Programme (ECCE) pre-school hours and most women work.
Some schools have private childcare options on site for the hour in between. Friends in other schools pay circa €120 a month for this – I find this unacceptable.
Clearly there is demand for a longer school day. The children would love extra Aistear play time and longer lunch breaks.
Really, has the time not come for all primary school children to finish at the same time and they could easily manage an extra hour on top of this to bring the school day for all children up to six hours and 40 minutes?
Teachers could take more time with teaching, pupils more time with learning and playing, and it would give parents a fair run at the working day.
In England last week, in order that “no child is left behind”, a white paper announced that by next September schools will have to be open for a minimum of 32.5 hours a week – which is what schools in Ireland would do if we added on this hour.
Some schools are more up to date. A teacher friend works in an excellent school called Quin Dangan, ten minutes from Ennis, that has a principal who recognises the pressures on working parents. It is pretty much an 8am to 5pm campus. They have facilities smaller schools don’t, but as a starting point if the primary school day was longer and everyone finished at the same time, this would bring massive benefits.
At second level, we should have more days in school. They are currently in for a minimum of 167 which means we have longer summer holidays and shorter school terms than most countries in Europe. We have slightly above-average hours of learning so no wonder our exam years are pressure cooker central.
The changes to the Leaving Cert announced this week to spread exams out over two years are welcome but what is really needed is a longer term to take the heat off students and teachers. Give more periods during the day for exercise and reading – space out those learning hours, it takes time to process new information. When I look at my son’s daily timetable I feel exhausted.
This summer he will be finished up a month before his siblings. Handy if we lived on a farm but playing Fortnite for a month at home is not something I’m excited about.
Are we really going to cruise along like this? Even after two years of disruption? Research shows it is kids from poorer backgrounds that have the most learning loss after the summer. Has Covid not forced us to evaluate? Great teachers are one of our strengths and if we expect them to work more they should of course get paid more. Last month the Department of Education’s chief inspection report at primary level teaching and learning was very good in about 85pc of inspections.
But it also said the effects of the pandemic led to pupils at most risk of educational disadvantage disproportionately affected and it was possible, in the next few years, we may see a slowing, or even a reversal of the progress we have made in improving learning outcomes of Deis school pupils. This should be taken seriously and looked at in the wider view that, as our society has changed, schools need to become more like social hubs, and everyone will benefit.