The Other Side of ‘Freedom Day’ for Working Parents

Author: Jennifer Liston Smith, Head of Thought Leadership

At some point during July, or August, the UK regions look set to pass through a hinge moment in our pandemic journey. ‘Freedom day’ has a target of 19th July for England while Scotland is working toward 9th August. Wales will review on 15th July and Northern Ireland on or before 8th July.

For many employers, the much-awaited lifting of restrictions will tie in with re-opening of offices, moving away from fully remote towards more hybrid working. This summertime transition could present fresh challenges for working parents of school-age children. Inclusive employers will want to think through how to acknowledge this. Here’s how the employers we work with are thinking about it.

Mind the Care Gap

School holidays are longer than everyone’s annual leave, and there has always been a reliance on summer clubs to bridge the gap. In summer 2020, virtual holiday clubs were the sanity-saver. In 2021 there are high hopes, and already great booking demand, for traditional clubs while virtual programmes also continue.

During the pandemic restrictions, many employers extended their booking window for back-up care. They have moved beyond immediate emergencies to enabling a 90-day-ahead planned provision, meaning more families can arrange to use their back-up care allowance on holiday clubs.

A fully-subsidised provision for holiday clubs (or, failing that, internal volunteers curating lists of available local programmes) means employees have practical support when it comes to that must-have first team-building get-together for 16 months.

The other approach would be to down-play gathering in offices until the Autumn, taking account of other team members’ holidays too. Either way, it’s about conscious inclusion and considering the different demands faced by different groups of employees. Employers acknowledging – and ideally solving – care needs makes hybrid working more inclusive, from the outset, this summer.

Playing Catch-up

There is something else happening too. Parents are looking for more than somewhere to ‘park’ their loved ones while they work. There is concern about educational catch-up, which came through in Bright Horizons’ US Modern Family Index, drawing on over 2,000 working parents surveyed in February 2021. Parents were predicting negative consequences of the lockdowns for their children: 69% were concerned that their children would not meet key developmental milestones; 30% felt their children were falling behind academically and 42% were concerned about long-term effects on academic progress. 74% of parents of high school students were very concerned their children would not be prepared for the college admissions process. Here in the UK, parents face ongoing isolations from schools even as the easing of restrictions draws near.

Which of us working parents genuinely feels we have done enough during lockdown for our young people? Even when we have done plenty, dialling our support / nagging / teaching / unconditional acceptance up and down with exquisite sensitivity, sometimes through gritted teeth, we often don’t feel it’s enough; such is the nature of these awkward times. Feeling we may have failed in this is yet another body blow dealt by this pandemic.

Aware of this stress, employers have encouraged and supported their working parents to access specialist clubs. Richer Education’s programmes span a wide age range with topics such as advanced science, archaeology, coding, leadership, law, debating & public speaking, entrepreneurial skills, engineering and philosophy & creative thinking. Our Senior Provider Relations Manager, Lisa Farnell, tells me there was “unbelievable demand” for these in virtual form during the February half term. The summer promises a busy return to onsite experiences too.

The other creative development, beyond access to courses and clubs, is where employers encourage their people to translate their back-up care allowance into tutoring. Already underway in the US, this is beginning in the UK. Tutoring through Explore Learning will meet the needs of young people aged 4 to 14 years, following the National Curriculum in England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Ireland, and can be covered through back-up care programmes. Those who are not advocating the use of back-up care for tutoring can still provide access to discounts on tutoring. This movement overall marks a real shift away from providing care as a means of enabling presence at work, to a tool for wellbeing and support.

Ongoing Hybrid Care

The summer is only the beginning of new ways of working. Employers are already exploring how best to support employees with an ongoing blend of care arrangements. A ‘Hybrid Childcare Programme’ can allow flexibility across types of provision, such as a combination of nurseries close to home and close to work.

Others will be using one of our community nurseries as a near-workplace nursery, making gathering in office hubs appealing again (and with all the tax advantages to parents that come with workplace nurseries). They will be blending this with a back-up care programme enabling the employee to access nurseries, childminders or in-home nannies when there is an unexpected change in schedule or a gap in existing care arrangements.

Starting Young

At the other end of the scale, in the context of easing stress for parents at work, it’s good to know that positive mental health is prioritised from the outset with a new wellbeing-based curriculum in our workplace and community nurseries.

The Bright Beginnings Curriculum takes an holistic approach to Early Years education, inspiring and engaging children with a focus on their wellbeing at its core, alongside the other key foundations of learning.

An approach that puts wellbeing at the heart of how we design education, as well as how we manage working lives, has found its moment. It’s one of those important principles to stand up for, that the pandemic has surfaced.

What will you be doing to prioritise wellbeing and reduce stress as we move to the next phase, for working parents, for all your employees, and for yourself?