The impact of school closure on working women 

As Paul Bridgland speaks out against schools remaining open during the pandemic, I feel it is important to remember the impact this year’s prolonged school closure has had on working mothers, and in turn, their contribution to the economy and future of Surrey. While women’s opportunities have come to align more with men’s over the last sixty years, with each successive generation having more rights than the one before, the physical closure of schools this year showed just how far equality still has to go. 

On 23rd March 2020, the UK went into lockdown. School buildings were closed for sixteen weeks and all schoolwork became homework. From this point onwards, the UK’s working mothers were put under significant pressure. Not only did our employers and clients expect us to do the same amount of work we had done before, but we were juggling our paid work with having our children at home and overseeing their education. 

Meanwhile, schools and the press were focusing on disadvantaged families who might not have internet access at home so might not be able to do their schoolwork online. This was an important issue, but it overshadowed discussion about the impact on working families. When working mothers are forced to become teachers (or detention supervisors?), neither their work nor their children’s is likely to be any good.  

There are three strands to my life: I’m a mother, a copywriter and a school governor. From March to September of this year, I just felt I was rubbish at all of them. 

In my family, we started well…from an education point of view. My children, then 13, 12 and 10, did all their schoolwork for the first week, my algebra came on a treat and we stuck to our timetable every day. 

But keeping it going was hard work, and prevented me from writing for my own clients. And when I dared to open my own laptop, the children (sorry, guys!) saw the opportunity to slack off. 

In theory, I had time to do my work because I’d stopped cracking the whip over my children; in practice, I couldn’t get on with anything because my head was taken up with worrying that they were all glued to computer games and their brains were turning to mush. In addition, my job (like many others) demands unbroken periods of silence. 

Where’s my husband in all this? He was (and still is) doing call centre work. From the utility room. With pre-designated breaks and button to click when he goes for a wee. Like most other fathers, his life wasn’t dominated by steering the online learning, cleaning the house and sorting out squabbles. He was enjoying uninterrupted working, which is more than you can say for any working mother in recent months. 

So that was my family’s experience of work and school during lockdown. We weren’t alone. Here are some numbers:

A survey by the Institute of Fiscal Studies and UCL of 3,500 families conducted in March and April reported that on average, mothers spent 10.3 hours per day looking after their children – two hours more than fathers. 

The same survey revealed that, in households where the father was the “head parent,” mothers were still only achieving, on average, five hours of paid work per day.  

In families where both mother and father were working from home (like mine) the mother did 32% less paid work than the father. 

A further survey was carried out this autumn in the USA, by LeanIn.org and McKinsey and Company. It showed that a quarter of mothers were considering scaling back or giving up work altogether as a result of the pandemic. 

Working women also make a substantial contribution to the economy. UN Women estimates that gender gaps (such as those created by the pandemic) cost the economy 15% of GDP. 

And here’s the statistic we would all love to know but can’t – the long-term impact of school closure in 2020. 

The key argument for keeping schools open during second lockdown is education. But remember too that most of the lockdown wranglings have been about wellbeing and the economy. When political, educational and business leaders consider the impact of school closure, it is vital that they don’t ignore the impact on mothers’ working lives. Women make up half the population, we are important and our contribution must not be underestimated.  If schools close again to minimise the spread of covid, it is vital that better provision is made for mothers and children alike. Without this, we risk damaging the economy and undoing generations of invaluable work towards gender equality.