COMMENT

Are you over the school holidays yet? Many families are now entering the sixth week of an extended stint of juggling work and full time childcare, and for some, it's getting tough.

I think it's time to talk about whether a six-week school holiday makes sense in 2019. Should the summer break be shortened to five or even four weeks? This year I'll be working on a Private Member's Bill to get the conversation started.

Don't get me wrong, I share the dream of kids spending the entire school holidays rambling in the bush, making forts and playing with friends. Children are enriched by these experiences and families are strengthened by time together. Goodness knows teachers need a break.

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But let's get real. In 2019 most parents work. There is no Mary Poppins. The modern family is juggling childcare and work and the school holidays turn the pressure and costs up a notch. It's not all nature-play and home-crafts. Making the summer break just one week shorter could really help.

Let me be upfront, my husband and I have four children aged 8, 7, 5 and 3, we both work and we've done the January childcare juggle for years. The school holidays are a special time for our family - the opportunity to visit the park and the beach, to get over the exhaustion of the year and generally hang-out as a family is a privilege we value.

But as the school holidays tick-on and I talk with other Mums and Dads, I've been reflecting on how challenging this time is for many Kiwi families, most of whom don't have my privileges.

New Zealand schools close for 12 weeks of holidays a year, even in a two-parent household, with four weeks' annual leave each which is not used at any other time in the year, you're going to need some childcare to cover the gap.
Families make the extended summer break work. They have to. Some employers are incredibly generous and flexible. Grandparents are enlisted (and exhausted), favours are sought, babysitters hired, paid out-of-school programmes fill up.

Even so, the school-holiday childcare squeeze is a logistical and living-costs nightmare for many. Some days even the Grandma-of-the-Year needs a break. School holiday programmes aren't always available or appropriate. In many households, bank balances are strained, fresh from the Christmas onslaught and braced for the pile-on of back to school costs.

Peer into Kiwi homes right now and you'll find the TV is on and very few of us are running maths lessons. The squeeze can be even greater for single-parent families, those without family or friends to call on and parents with low incomes or inflexible work.

Most importantly, Kiwi kids feel the impact. Research shows the "summer slide" in student achievement is real. Kids' literacy abilities can decline over the six-week break, with one study showing students losing months of progress over summer. Much of term one can be spent getting kids back to where they left off the following year. This is a real barrier to achievement.

As National's early childhood education spokesperson I've noticed how early childhood services have adapted in recent decades to meet the challenges of modern working families. Over time more and more preschools have moved to open during the school holidays because they've seen how desperate parents are for the help. The government funding system also gives them the flexibility to do so.

It's time to talk about how the school calendar might also adapt. Should the summer break be shortened to five or even four weeks? Should more school premises be made available for holiday care? Can we increase the choices families have? These are fair questions in a world of working parents.

Most of these issues are at the discretion of the Minister of Education but I'll be looking at how legislative changes could help.

What does this conversation mean for teachers? They work incredibly hard in one of the most important jobs in our community. They deserve good holidays. They also need non-contact time for planning and prep. At the moment, teachers can be required by school Boards to attend school for up to 10 days during the 12 weeks of school holidays. What if a portion of those requirements were classroom-focused instead?

I'm not arguing we throw out the extended school break altogether. It's a Kiwi treasure. Families understand that parenting requires the sacrifice of time and money and affords privileges in return. But ask most Mums and Dads how they feel about sending their kids back to school next week? Await the collective sigh of relief.

Nicola Willis, a List MP based in Wellington, is National's spokesperson for early childhood education.