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Parents get time off for children's first day of school - but is it enough?

By Kate Hilpern

First day of schoolWorking parents, take heed – the BBC reported this week that many employers are now giving workers an extra day of paid leave so they don’t miss out on their child’s first day at school.

But do employers go far enough in ensuring parents get to be there for major moments in their child’s school life? Or is this little more than paying lip service? And could employers think more outside the box than handing out a whole day off on a day that parents are surely likely to be home and dry by 10am anyway? Especially, if they’re the kind of employers that get shirty when that same parent comes in late on day two or three of school because their child has had a complete meltdown about going in (a more likely scenario, as many of us know).

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not knocking the idea of bosses being more understanding about people’s need to take time off for caring duties. No parent wants to miss out on the milestone of their child’s first ever day of school. No wonder that the two parents the BBC talked to were delighted.

Chief executive James Timpson, one of the parent’s employers, had given a whopping 150 employees this extra day off. ‘Starting school is one of the most important days in any family’s life,’ he told the BBC. ‘Having an extra day off to be there at the school gates is a great benefit every business should have in place.’ Meanwhile, Caroline Prendergast, chief people officer at Aviva (the other parent’s employer) said that the firm wanted to help employees on the ‘nerve-wracking day for both children and their parents.’

But what happens when those parents want to attend their child’s class assembly, leave early for parents’ evening or take a day off because their child is sick? We hear too many stories of working parents still being side-lined when it comes to asking for reasonable amounts of time off to fulfil parental duties.

In fact, you could argue that dropping the kids off at school, including on day one, isn’t actually that hard for many working parents, who do that before they head off to work anyway. Either that, or the parents could book the morning off as part of their annual leave anyway (or just ask to go in an hour late). ‘Is this really an issue? Or a made-up middle-class problem? Like Waitrose running out of avocados?’ a colleague voiced this morning. The bigger challenges are surely those events or unexpected moments that are more mundane than the first day of school, but equally necessary in terms of parental attendance, when a request for leave is often far more likely to be met with rolled eyes from your boss.

In many ways, it might suit everyone better if there were fewer grand gestures such as the ‘let’s give all parents a day off to see their tiny tots off to school on day one’ and more of ‘come and see me if we can help you juggle your caring needs with work in any way.’ After all, there’s a good chance non-parent workers might have felt discriminated against with this week’s news – non-parent workers who themselves might want paid time off to see their parent into a new nursing home or see their granddaughter in her school play.

Poor bosses, you might think, they can’t win. But the best companies do win if they constantly work to ensure their policies and practices meet the needs of all their workers in practical and thoughtful ways and where those in senior positions are seen to be taking advantage of them. Providing time off for the first day of school is all well and good, provided it’s part of a positive bigger picture.

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