I am not the child-minding Granny. Let’s get that out there straight away. Sometimes I really would like to be – I love spending time with my grandsons and I love being able to help my daughter out. Like many other grandmothers out there, I still have to work to pay the rent / mortgage / I still have teenage kids of my own at home. So my working hours prevent me looking after my grandchildren and giving my daughter a chance to earn her living, have a career and make the most of her ambitions while she has the strength, youth and energy to do so.
But my daughter does run her own small business, and she pays for a nursery for her youngest child and works her clients around her older son’s pre-school hours. He is four years old and just starting school in September and like all other working parents, she is about to experience the horrors of half-days.
Now, just before the start of the summer holidays, I ended up in an interesting debate about half days with a few other Gibraltar mums, some of them teachers. The variety of views about half days was fascinating. Some, notably the career parents stoutly argued against half days. They did not feel that half days are remotely necessary and, having struggled to balance out childcare and working hours around normal school times, these few weeks can present a challenge so intense as to drive you to despair. Others felt it was great, that they could start the beach-going season and that it was too hot for school anyway. Again notably, these were parents who either did not work, or worked mornings, or whose retired parents could start the beach day off by taking their grandkids to “El Quarry” where they would be joined by said working parent later in the day. Finally, there was one mum openly arguing that there should be no half days and that term should finish early anyway because she felt the kids did no learning during this time and all they did was watch movies. I’m not sure she had that much support, not in our little group round a café table.
Then there were the teachers, who argued strongly that half-days, since Gibraltar only has one half-term break per academic year, were full of useful education opportunities for the children and helped them complete the requisite school hours and curriculum. And I’m for the teachers here. From what I’ve seen, half days are a little bit more than half days and my kids have had lessons and homework throughout, as well as school trips. Yes, my daughter did watch a movie – and then had to write an essay about the theme and the characters. Education and learning, in the skilled hands of a trained teacher, can be derived from a huge variety of circumstances, not all of them needing textbooks and black boards.
But half days are hard for working parents. I personally have had to stay at work until the usual 5.30pm knowing the kids, now teenagers, are at home on their own, and when they were younger I had to cajole family and friends to have them for me for a few hours. Which may be an option to many local parents, but to those who don’t have Gran or Grandad or Auntie Whoever, on hand to help, despair sets in. The over-riding effect is many kids having to go from pillar to post and guilt-ridden parents.
So I’m wondering if there is a legion of grandparents out there who are girding their loins for the September half days, and harder still, for the term-long half days for Reception year children. I hugely admire the grandparents who give up their hard-earned free time, after years of raising their own families or working for their pensions, to care for their grandchildren. I’m sure they do it out of love, but I hazard a guess that some of them would appreciate decent, affordable childcare so that they only need to do it for love now and then, rather than all the time. But there is simply not enough quality, regulated childcare in Gibraltar for the needs of local families, so grandparents do it if parents can’t. The result – stressed parents, stressed teachers, stressed grandparents and stressed kids, albeit grandparents feel rewarded and kids develop a close bond with their extended families. And, sad to say, it is still the case that this adversely affects women and their careers and earning potential, which overall is not good for the economy or for society as a whole. Nor for the next generation of women.
I have to add that I can’t quite get my head round this long period of half days for Reception Year children. If they are too young to start school full time, why are they in school at all? Is it to keep people in teaching jobs? Is if of any benefit to the kids themselves? Would they not be better off staying in focused childcare and play schemes? Why on earth are we imposing structured learning on such young children? Does learning to read at 4 result in better academic outcomes at 16? We would do well to look at the Scandinavian model where children don’t start formal education till much later and where academic achievement outstrips our own. But that is a whole other discussion and food for thought.
So I salute all those marvelous Grans (and Grandads) on the Rock who are standing outside the school gates shortly after noon in the blazing September heat, doing the school run all over again in their dotage. I just hope that with consistent campaigning, parents will begin to find that adequate childcare is provided so kids can enjoy being kids, and grans at last can enjoy being – independent strong women with no ties!