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Celeb News

How schools are failing working mums

Ladies, bring a plate! Schools love to preach gender equality, so why are mums expected to be ever-ready volunteers in canteens and cake stalls, Susan Horsburgh asks.

As kids don their squeaky new school shoes, spare a thought for the mums who are steeling themselves for yet another year of tuckshop duty, class reading and cake baking.
Mothers are the great, unsung army propping up schools across the country – covering library books and selling uniforms, organising fetes and flogging lamingtons – and many of them are in the paid workforce as well. As if morning lunchboxes and evening readers weren’t onerous enough.
Seemingly with no sense of the irony, schools enforce a curious double standard: they tell our girls they can dream big and be anything they want, but then confound the message by assuming the girls’ mothers are available for all manner of fundraising efforts and school events, usually during work hours.
And that is the assumption. How else do you explain the Mother’s Day morning tea, as opposed to the Father’s Day breakfast? The understanding, of course, is that dads have important work to do after 9am – and we can’t possibly mess with that – but mums are flexible. And not all employers necessarily agree.
“It’s a really big issue,” says Annabel Crabb, author of The Wife Drought: Why Women Need Wives, And Men Need Lives. “We traditionally think of schools as places where kids learn to read and write, but they’re also where parents learn to be parents.
“I heard so many stories from women who said, ‘I’m the primary breadwinner, but if something goes wrong, the [school] office will always call me’. And there’s ... a generalised disapproval of those mothers who don’t help with reading and tuckshop, but no aspersions cast on fathers.”
The problem ranges in severity from school to school, of course, and socio-economic factors seem to play a part. One top private girls’ school in Sydney, for example, recently announced a series of six feedback sessions for parents and only one was scheduled after 6pm.
“A lot of them are one-income families because they’re off-the-scale wealthy,” says one working mother at the school, who has three daughters, “so there are a lot of stay-at-home mums.
“But what message does [all the daytime scheduling] give my daughters? It gives them the message that part of my job is being pulled in 452 directions and that’s okay – I should suck it up. My reasonable needs don’t have to be considered.
“For the girls, it’s all, ‘I can be whatever I want’, and you kind of don’t want to say, ‘Yeah, until you have a baby’.”
Take the proliferation of “pupil-free” or “curriculum” days (when working parents are expected to magic up childcare mid-term) or truncated hours for children starting school. My daughter starts prep in January and finishes at 1pm for the first three weeks – a tricky predicament for parents who work and don’t have grandparents handy.
At one Melbourne state school, it was decided that preppies should be picked up at lunchtime until mid-March. When a group of working mums approached the principal to explain the problems that posed, it didn’t go down well – she accused them of being “aggressive” for challenging the decision.
According to one of the working mums at the school, “the principal said, ‘They confront me as though it’s a corporate negotiation’.” She discounted their concerns, saying other mothers had found alternative arrangements in previous years – but when the fathers (who all had working wives) went in and argued the same points, she organised after-school care.
Obviously, behind Australia’s much celebrated egalitarianism lie deep-seated beliefs about who should provide the mother lode of parenting. “In some ways, it’s not at all surprising,” says Annabel, “because ... schools respond to what they see around them.”
Read more of this story in the February issue of The Australian Women’s Weekly.

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