‘We have children as young as four who are at school 8.00am-6.00pm eating breakfast, lunch and dinner’ says ATL survey

Teachers unions on a ‘Save our Schools’ lobby of parliament
Teachers unions on a ‘Save our Schools’ lobby of parliament

CHILDHOOD is being eroded as children spend less time with families and friends, according to a survey of members of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), which is holding its annual conference in Manchester this week.

In the survey 56% per cent of teachers, lecturers, support staff and school leaders believe children spend a lot less time with their families now compared to 20 years ago. It found 74% of education staff think families spend less time together now than five years ago and 57% think they spend less time together than two years ago.

More than nine in 10 (94%) of respondents believe the reduction in the time children spend with their families is a result of parents and carers working, and 92% feel an increase in the use of technology is to blame.

Other reasons included changes to parents’ and carers’ work-life balance, mentioned by 75% of those surveyed, and changes to family dynamics, such as family break-down (70%).

Steve Wood, a teacher at a state secondary school in Kirklees said: ‘The pressures on family time have grown considerably and work-life balance for many parents is an increasingly difficult area – the necessity to stay in work means time spent with children isn’t always a priority.’

A primary school teacher in Bexley commented: ‘I feel that, through no fault of the parents, there is an expectation to work before looking after your own family.

‘Living costs mean it is unaffordable for only one parent to work, and there is less importance attached to bringing up children, with a detrimental effect on children and family life, with more use of technology and less time spent together.’

The main reason for children using before-school services was to provide childcare for parents and carers who work or have other responsibilities, according to 90% of education staff.

Meanwhile 19% feel these services provide an opportunity for young people to eat a proper breakfast. And 84% of respondents said parents used after-school services for childcare.

Other reasons for pupils using the services included the opportunity for them to improve skills, mentioned by 45% of those surveyed, and study and homework support (39%).

A peripatetic musician curriculum and instrumental teacher in Warwickshire commented: ‘In some schools breakfast and after-school clubs provide an essential part of the child’s nutrition.

‘Parents rely on before- and after-school childcare, since both are usually working longer hours than the school day and schools provide cost-effective and trusted care.’

A primary school teacher in Kent stated: ‘Many of our parents are commuters into London and therefore work long hours. We have children as young as four who are at school 8am-6pm, eating breakfast, lunch and dinner.’

An early years teacher in a state school in North Yorkshire said: ‘Some children are placed in before- and after-school care from 8am to 6pm.

‘These children walk around like ghosts, do not talk to anyone, fall asleep frequently, do not progress as quickly as their peers. Their parents are also “too busy” to support them in an adequate way at home.’

Ninety-eight per cent of those surveyed said it’s very important for children to spend time with their families or carers.

In addition, 79% of education staff said it was very important for children to do outdoor activities, 69% felt they should spend time with their siblings, and 64% felt time with friends was important.

A primary school teacher in Kent said: ‘Children need a balance of interactions – with peers, parents and other adults. They also need time to grow as an individual.’

A specific learning difficulties teacher at a state secondary school in Bury commented: ‘They need a balance – time with families to develop a sense of security and time away from families to develop independence.’

Teachers do not agree with recent government proposals for children to start school at an earlier age, with 71% of those surveyed saying children should start school at five years or older, and only 24% believing the current school starting age of four is suitable.

When questioned over the number of hours a young person should spend in timetabled education, 50% of education staff stated that five hours per day at primary school was enough, with 28% saying it should be less than five hours.

At secondary level, 38% of education staff said a six-hour day was suitable, while 45% said young people should spend no more than 5.5 hours per day in timetabled education.

For sixth formers, 37% said a six-hour day was right, 26% thought it should be no more than 5.5 hours, while 33% felt more than six hours per day was suitable.

Seventy-seven per cent of those surveyed felt that for the majority of the pupils they work with, the timetabled day was about right. However, 18% of respondents believed it to be too long, affecting the pupils they work with in terms of tiredness (93%), difficulty concentrating (87%) and an increase in disruptive behaviour (67%).

A member of support staff at a free school in Buckinghamshire commented: ‘For the younger children aged four who are not at a higher developmental stage it is too long; we see increased tiredness, inability to concentrate or motivate and emotional problems.’

Holidays are seen as an important time for both education staff and pupils to recharge. The current set-up, with a six-week summer break was considered by 49% as being the best for the young people respondents worked with.

However, 34% of education staff felt a shorter summer break of around four weeks, but with longer holidays during the rest of the year, would be better.

A peripatetic musician curriculum and instrumental teacher in Warwickshire stated: ‘A six-week break in the summer allows a real break from school routines and an opportunity to relax and refresh, as well as learning in a different context. It offers opportunities to visit friends and family.’

Shelagh Hirst, a supply teacher in Calderdale said: ‘I don’t think it matters what the pattern is. What is most important is it is consistent across the UK. Different schools having different patterns is very hard for those families with children in different settings when their children have different holidays.’

A teacher at a state secondary school in Essex commented: ‘I like the existing long summer holiday, but actually I think the students would often be better learners if we had a regular pattern of terms and breaks, including shorter holidays at regular intervals.

Dr Mary Bousted, general secretary of ATL said: ‘Proposals by the government for children to start school at an earlier age, along with proposals for flexibility for schools and colleges to change the length of the school day and school holidays do not put young people first.

‘It’s really important for children to have time to be children, to play with friends and spend time with their families. However, increasing living costs mean that for most families it is now unaffordable for only one parent to work.

‘Parents in the UK are working some of the longest hours in Europe and this puts a huge pressure on family life. Parents are coming home exhausted having worked from 7am to 7pm, and frequently the children are tired too if they’ve spent all day at school or with childminders.

‘We are the “poor man of Europe” when it comes to unpaid overtime and more needs to be done to support families and children so that they can spend more time together.’

• The Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) conducted this survey of 1,343 education staff in March ahead of its 2014 annual conference at Manchester Central. Those surveyed ranged from state and independent schools, academies, free schools and sixth form colleges in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.