For many parents, school starting times pose a headache as their working day begins at the same time, writes Ailin Quinlan
Busy parents can drop children at the creche as early as 7.30am on their way to work — but once the child starts school, many couples face a logistical nightmare.
In Germany, primary school begins as early as 7.30am. In Italy and Finland many kids start classes at 8am, while in France the school doors usually open around 8.30am. On top of that, it’s often the norm for schools in other European countries to have on-site childcare facilities tailored to the needs of time-poor working parents.
This is not the situation in Ireland.
Here, most schools open around 9am or later — which means young children are literally expected to arrive around the time a parent is starting work, often in a town or city many miles away. Schools don’t usually have on-site child-minding services for harried working parents, which surprises many who have moving here from abroad.
Mel Thornton, principal of the Educate Together School in Carrigaline, Co Cork says: “Several of our families are from other European countries and would have been in schools where such a service was the norm. “It’s the norm in France and in Spain, for example, where they’d have services facilitating early drop-offs and pick-ups by parents later in the day.
“Several of our families would have been used to this kind of service abroad and would have expected the service to be here.”
After becoming aware of the demand among parents for such a service, Thornton introduced one in early September, to coincide with the start of the new school term. However, the Sherpa Kids out-of-school hours childcare service was only introduced to the school on the basis that it be affordable and flexible.
The service, which employs qualified childcare staff and is available on an hourly basis, opens at 7.40am and runs to 8.40am when the school doors open. In the afternoons children can avail of it between 2.30pm and 6pm.
Sherpa Kids is also available at Scoil Naomh Eltin NS in Kinsale and has been at St Joseph’s NS in Clonakilty since last year. Branches have also opened at a number of schools in Dublin and Kildare.
“It’s very flexible, so parents can use it whenever they want. They can phone the service and school and request that their child be dropped into the Sherpa Kids service. They’re not locked into a contract,” says Mel, who believes the €5-an-hour fee is affordable.
“The service started here on the first day back in September and it’s become more and more popular.
“It alleviates the stress for parents in trying to get here,” she says, adding that if parents are late collecting children from school, they can request that the child stay in the Sherpa ‘room’ until they arrive.
It’s an effective solution to the busy modern lifestyle, Mel says. “A lot of our families now have both parents working. Mums are not always at home because they need to work and have financial commitments.
“Also, traffic is very heavy and, as a lot of parents work outside the town, many have to be at work at the same time the children start school.”
Susan O’Hanrahan, principal of Scoil Naomh Eltin in Kinsale, also introduced the service in September. “Our students are cared for in a safe and welcoming environment. As a parent I understand the importance of a secure and reliable childcare,” she says.
Take-up by parents at both schools has been so strong, says Teresa Bebb, who set up both services with her husband David, that the couple are now seeking other schools in the Douglas, Rochestown, Carrigaline, or Monkstown areas interested in partnering with Sherpa Kids.
With the demand for this service, is there a case to be made for earlier start times in Irish primary schools, given that the existing regulations were laid down generations ago, when the majority of women stayed at home and were available to accompany children to school?
According to the Department of Education, schools must be open to receive pupils no later than 9.30am. However, the actual opening time of a primary school is a matter for the school’s board of management.
A spokesperson for the Irish National Teacher Organisation said start times were an issue for schools at local level, “in terms of liaising with their own parent community”. Although her little boy isn’t due to start school until September 2016, Laura is already worried.
With a five-day, 9am-5.30pm job and no readily available family support, Laura, a lone parent in her 30s, is anxious about the logistical problems her son’s first term at school will bring: “My son is currently in a creche which is open from 8am to 6pm and it is still a bit of a rush to get to the creche for 6pm through rush-hour traffic. I’m very concerned about how I’ll manage to drop him at school for 9am and still get to work.
“I have to be at work by 9am, so dropping him myself doesn’t seem to be realistic. It’d be much easier if the school’s start time was earlier because that’d mean having to work out an arrangement for only one end of the day.” The school in which Laura is considering enrolling her son does not have an after-school-hours childcare service and, although her son’s creche does provide an after-school collection service, it’s expensive, and she estimates, would cost her over €600 a month. “The issue of drop-off and collection currently looks like a logistical nightmare to me.
“People don’t’ realise that when a child goes to school the cost of getting kids dropped off and collected is expensive — and trying to arrange it can be very stressful.”
There is a big gap in start times for children moving from preschool structure into ‘big school’, acknowledges Bebb. “The schools are very proactive and engaged and they see this as an issue for parents.
“There are plenty of creches opening from 8am, but once the children start school, start times are later.”
Furthermore, she explains, some parents may also be forced to juggle different collection times for children at different levels of primary school. “You’re straight into a logistical nightmare trying to work around collection and working patterns and parents are looking for alternatives to bridge that gap.”
Evelyn O’Connor, a mother of three, needs to be at work for 9am each day. A GP in Clonakilty, she has a 30-minute commute to work from her home in Kilbrittain.
Her husband, Joe Moloney, a dentist, starts work at his clinic in the town at 8.30am. The primary school her two youngest daughters attend opens at 8.50am, Although Evelyn was able to drop the girls at school and still get to work, the issue of after-school collection was a thorn in the couple’s side for many years: “In the past, it was a case of either me or my husband coming out of work and bringing the children either to a childminder or to an off site after school service.
“We tried everything.”
In September 2014 the school introduced an on-site after-school-hours childcare service, Sherpa Kids. “It has worked out very well. The Sherpa Kids room is in the same building, so the girls just walk there. They go in, have something to eat, and do their homework”.
Later the girls enjoy activities such as cookery or sport, while the service will also collect them from out-of-school activities. “My husband usually collects them around 5pm but they can stay there ’til 6pm if he’s delayed. The big thing for us is their safety and happiness.
“The service is flexible — you can ring if you’re stuck and they can take the kids at short notice.”
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