SCHOOL’S back after summer – but for some parents the cost of their local authority’s arrangements for Primary 1 pupils has been hundreds of pounds.

The Sunday National can reveal a postcode lottery for families across Scotland because of the “half-day” policy put in place by some local authorities at the start of term, with Primary 1 pupils only attending for a short day to ease four and five-year-olds into the change of going to school.

Working parents have told the Sunday National that the policy causes stress, racks up childcare costs and puts a burden on relatives if parents can’t arrange for days and sometimes weeks of time off from their employers in order to pick children up at lunchtimes.

Fourteen out of Scotland’s 32 local authorities operate half days at the start of Primary 1 – Aberdeen, Aberdeenshire, Angus, Dundee, East Dunbartonshire, Edinburgh, Falkirk, Fife, Glasgow, Inverclyde, Moray, Perth and Kinross, Shetland and West Dunbartonshire. On average pupils have 10 days of half days at the start of term.

Less than 50% of primary schools in the Highland region offer a full day at the start of terms, and in Shetland some schools don’t start a full day until eight weeks after the start of the school term.

And East Ayrshire offers phased starts for pupils if parents have agreed this with individual headteachers.

All Primary 1 pupils are also entitled to a free school lunch from the start of term, regardless of whether their school day ends before the lunch break.

Some parents have told the Sunday National that they weren’t aware of the entitlement to a free lunch from the first day of term and that this hasn’t been offered to them.

Eleanor Mullan, whose daughter has just started Primary 1 at a Glasgow City Council school, told the Sunday National that she had to rent a flat for her parents to stay in to allow her to work for some of the eight days of half days at the start of term.

She said: “For the second week at the start of term, at a cost of hundreds of pounds plus their time and effort, my parents came up from England and we rented a flat for them so that they could do the lunchtime pickup for the full week of half days. There was just no other way we could work it.”

The family started planning for the transition to school several months in advance.

Mullan said: “It’s a logistical nightmare for working parents. We started the planning for managing my daughter going into Primary 1 back in May, after the school induction. That’s how far out you have to start organising childcare.

“I can understand why schools start on a half day – despite being used to full days at a private nursery my daughter was exhausted at the start – but having different people doing pick-ups and drop-offs at lunchtimes is no good either. She is so much better now she is in a full-day routine.

“In today’s society when so many people work it’s been really quite stressful.”

Some local authorities are now responding to changing patterns of work for parents and are ending the half-day policy.

Glasgow City Council will operate full days from the start of term for the first time in 2019.

Councillor Chris Cunningham, Glasgow City Council’s convener for education, skills and early years, said starting all children on a full day from the start of term was “a sensible decision.”

“By August 2019, our P1 children will be full time from their first day of school and I’m sure that parents and carers will welcome this for a variety of reasons.”

The National:

South Lanarkshire moved to a full day in 2017 following consultation with parents. South Lanarkshire Council’s executive director of education resources Tony McDaid said: “We all want children to have the best educational start in life, with many attending nursery before they go to school.

“Over the course of a number of years we have reduced the period of time when children who start school attend for a full day, as at one time they did not do so until October. Through discussions it was clear children were used to coming to nursery.

“The evidence shows that more and more children are attending nursery and are more familiar with a learning environment and the routines involved in being in a school setting.”

Geraldine O’Hanlon, head teacher of St Kenneth’s Primary School in East Kilbride, said the new policy was working for children.

“Our new Primary 1 children have made a terrific transition to primary school. They are already confident with school routines, including playing with friends at break times.

“Full days allow class teachers to plan learning at a steady pace, making full use of the power of play. The benefits of nursery education increasingly supports our youngest pupils in making a super start to school life.”

On the issue of whether parents should ask for the free school lunch their child is entitled to, a spokesperson for the Scottish Government confirmed that their commitment to children’s nutrition starts on the first day of the school year.

The spokesperson said: “The Scottish Government provides free school meals universally to all pupils in primary one, including those on half-day staggered starts.

“Free school meals are an important contribution to the transition to school by supporting pupils as they settle into the normal school routine.”

A spokesperson from Cosla did not comment on whether local authorities should be proactive in making parents aware of this entitlement.

PARENTS from across Scotland have found the start of term a struggle if they live in an area where half days are the norm.

Nikki, a mum from Inverclyde, said: “It’s a nightmare trying to arrange childcare around half days for Primary 1. I’ve taken unpaid leave for two weeks as I would run out of annual leave otherwise. We’ve lost hundreds of pounds.

“Kids are well used to spending a whole day at nursery, and the school is open and the teacher is there. It doesn’t make sense and it’s unfair to working parents.”

Emma from Glasgow had to go to extreme lengths in order to pick up her son each lunchtime, and said her son hadn’t been offered the free lunch he is entitled to. “Pick-up from school is 12 noon and the lunch service doesn’t start until 12.15pm. No-one mentioned it.

“To get him to school I had to buy extra holidays to accommodate the early finishes, which costs each month of the year. I then had to travel from Glasgow to Dunfermline after I returned to work to catch up on training I’d missed while I was off. It was really difficult to manage but my work did accommodate me and I was lucky not to have to take unpaid leave.

“My wee boy has been at nursery 8am to 6pm since he was three. He would have been fine with a full day.”

ONE dad from the Moray area, who did not want to be named, said: “We are lucky to have only had four days of a half day. I know parents in other places that have had to take weeks off.

“Four days seems about right to me to ease them in. Any longer and our daughter would have been a bit confused about what the school experience actually is.

“She has loved the start of term and it was nice to spend time with her in the afternoons. We couldn’t have done this for more than a week, though.”

Working parents in Scotland can face real difficulties in finding affordable, high-quality childcare for after school and holiday care. A major study into the lives of working mothers, the Growing Up in Scotland report which was published last year, shows that eight out of 10 mothers in Scotland work, but that significant inequalities and challenges remain. Mothers on lower incomes are more likely than those on higher incomes to struggle with balancing paid work and caring responsibilities.

Nikki Slowey, co-director of Family Friendly Working Scotland, said that employers are becoming more progressive and flexible. “Combining work and family life can be a real challenge, with hurdles include finding childcare to suit your working hours, trying to cover school holidays and dealing with emergencies such as when your child is ill, not to mention attending parents’ nights and school shows.

“The good news is that we are seeing some really progressive employer practice, which is going a long way to support working parents. This includes flexible working such as adjusting start and finish times, reducing working hours, term-time working and time off to attend important events.

“The Scottish economy and labour market relies on the contributions of working parents and I would urge all employers to do what they can to help all of their employees combine work and home life more easily.”