No justification for one-parent-family payment cuts ... even on planet Joan

Mothers I know who work full-time and whose children are in primary school have full-time childminders, writes Victoria White

No justification for one-parent-family payment cuts ... even on planet Joan

PLANET JOAN is named after the woman who discovered it, Joan Burton, and it has a different primary school system than we have in Ireland. Joanna Tuffy, chair of the Oireachtas Committee on Education and Social Protection, is living on Planet Joan.

That is the only explanation for Tuffy’s attempt to justify the cuts of the one-parent-family payment, which will result in 30,000 to 40,000 lone parents being taken off the benefit on July 2, because their youngest child is seven. A child of seven, Tuffy said on radio show Morning Ireland last week, is “in school for a large part of the day”. A parent’s need for childcare is thus “very much changed from when your children are at pre-school age and you need full-time childcare.”

My porridge spoon stopped in mid-air as I waited for the incredibly competent host, Cathal Mac Coille, to throw the statement back in Tuffy’s face. But he didn’t. Later in the day, Drivetime’s host, Mary Wilson — I hope playing devil’s advocate — told Louise Bayliss, of the SPARKS lobby group, that the parent of a child who goes to school has “a chunk of time” free.

That’s all very understandable if you live on Planet Joan and have to travel intergalactically to find out the hours of the primary school day in Ireland. It’s a tough assignment. There are only 3,000 primary schools, with over half a million children, all with nearly the same hours. Finding a parent who can tell you exactly when their children go to school is like finding a needle in a haystack.

Is that a needle sticking into my bottom? Oh, that’s right — I’m a parent of children in primary school, aren’t I? I could look at the hours in my own children’s school! It runs from 8.30am to 2.10pm. Every school in the country has the same number of hours, but some schools start to suit the parent rushing to work, at 9.15am or later. Junior and senior infants do an hour less every day.

Our school runs a childcare service for the infants, to fill in the hour until their siblings finish. But that is a private arrangement made by the school board with private minders, and most schools don’t have it. But the lone parent of a seven-year-old who finishes school every day at 1pm is still considered fully available for work by our Department of Social Protection.

And let’s not forget the early closures over which parents have no control. Last week, my daughter finished at 11:20am on the day before her half-term holiday. She’s in sixth class and she booted off with her friends. But a few years ago — for years and years — I would have been standing at the school gate at 11.20am on a day I have a work deadline.

And what about the holidays? Primary school runs half the year, 183 days out of 365. My special-needs child was off for half-term all last week and I had to buy-in childcare for three afternoons, or I’d have lost the few jobs it’s been possible to do in school hours. That chopped my income by more than half. I had the luxury of making that investment in future earnings, because I have a partner and barely any mortgage.

I learned, long ago, that school is not a childcare proposition. What kind of job lets you off for July and August, for a week in October, for two weeks at Christmas, for a week in February, for two weeks at Easter and several other days, as well as all the days the child is ill with a bug picked up in school?

The only jobs like that are on Planet Joan. They let you off whenever your child is off, entail no commute and still pay so much you’d hardly miss a second income. But there’s a problem. The Department of Education is located in Ireland and has no plans to relocate to another planet.

Our primary schools are communities that work on the understanding that there will be a parent who is full-time in the home, or has the kind of flexibility you only get if you’re self-employed. There are the bake sales, the parent-teacher meetings, the sporting events after school, which often demand a parent as a taxi.

And, after that, the homework. I know two Mammies who have recently given up work because they have to supervise the homework of children who have academic challenges. Au pairs from Romania or Brazil don’t often cut the mustard with Irish homework.

Is it any wonder that Irish women are consistently more likely to be in work when their children are pre-schoolers than when they start school?

Look at the statistics for 2013, which show that mothers whose youngest child is four or five are 8% less likely to be in work than those whose youngest child is under three. This, despite the fact that at four or five children go to school and so their parents are, in the eyes of Joanna Tuffy and her boss, Joan Burton, free to work for “a large part of the day”.

The mothers I know who work full-time and whose children are in primary school have full-time childminders, and so have all the flexibility of a parent in the home. That’s loo-laa land for most lone parents, because they don’t have enough dosh. There may be a local crèche that does pick-ups from school and reverts to full-time care on those 85 week days that children have no school. But you’d be lucky to find it and hard-pressed to pay for it.

And your child may desperately want to go home and have play-dates and after-school activities, like his friends.

YOU MAY want for your child what his school-mates have, so he does not feel singled-out in any way. Why should the child of a lone parent not have the advantages of home and community, like most Irish school-children? I think the friendly, engaged circle of parents which forms around our schools must be incentivised to provide childcare. Stay-home parents could be vetted, given basic training, and supported to look after other people’s children. They could use the school building as a base for activities.

Such a scheme would keep children in homes in their communities and support participating parents to stay home themselves. It could be offered free, or heavily subsidised to lone parents returning to work or training, and that is important, because while seven is too young, you should be prepared for life after parenthood by the time your youngest is 14.

But what’s to be done? The Department of Social Protection and the Department of Education are on completely different planets and the media are picking up no signals between them.

Calling occupants of interplanetary craft…

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