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Back to school: What employers should be thinking about

Published: 14 May 2020

By Mubeen Bhutta, Joint Head of Policy and Influencing at Working Families

At the time of writing, the Government has put England’s working parents on notice that schools and childcare settings will start re-opening from June. Which children will go back first, what time of day they will attend, and how many other children will be in their classroom remain largely open to question. And, of course, many children won’t be returning in the short term for very good health reasons. 

The situation has been far from straightforward for working parents and their employers to manage while schools and childcare settings have been closed. We’ve seen great examples of a pragmatic and flexible approach to how work is organised during this time from some of our employer members, but we know from the sheer volume of people seeking support from our advice service that this has been far from the norm. 

Our aim as a charity is to always keep parents in work, but this simply hasn’t been practically possible for all families in the current situation. So when the Government heeded our call for employers to be able to put their people on furlough for childcare reasons, this was a huge relief. 

As we perhaps move to a new phase of tackling the pandemic, what should employers be considering for their working parents? 

  • Securing the right childcare is a perennial issue for working parents, and can be a real struggle for those returning from parental leave at the best of times. This situation is likely to have been exacerbated in the current uncertainty, with many early years providers closing their doors, unable to offer certainty over when and perhaps being uncontactable. Employers may be able to help with sourcing providers through existing employee assistance programmes, but could also remind new parents that they may have the right to take parental leave or emergency time off for dependants, albeit unpaid, and that making a flexible working request may help to balance work and care. 
  • While schools may reopen, and the government has also indicated that childminders and nannies can resume if they can meet relevant public health criteria, it is likely that many working parents will not be able to immediately access the wraparound care that they may previously have relied upon. Employers should have pragmatic conversations about how work may need to be organised to accommodate this. 
  • A phased approach to reopening school and childcare settings may mean that some parents remain in the same situation that they are currently managing if one or more of their children is not in the relevant year groups returning soonest. While the picture is very much emerging, line managers can prepare by having regular check ins with their staff about any communication they may have received from their child’s education or childcare setting. Employers will need to take a similarly phased and tailored approach. 
  • The Government has confirmed that the job retention scheme will now run until the end of October, with a part time furlough option available from August. While this option could be a great way for parents, who might otherwise be completely furloughed, to continue to play their part in the economic recovery employers must be mindful of making assumptions about whether parents can or cannot work. We have seen some worrying examples of working mothers and working fathers being treated differently by the same employer, and some evidence of a retraction to traditional gendered views about who works and who cares. The government has also called on employers to ensure that steps they take to make their workplaces safe do not end up disadvantaging people with caring responsibilities. 


Employers – a Working Families membership will give you the tools, guides and policies you need to implement flexible and family-friendly business practices. We also offer coaching and business support. Our online shop sells a range of resources to help employers of all sizes – from all sectors – attract and retain the best talent by creating flexible, family-friendly workplaces.

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For more information about your flexible working rights as a parent/carer, call the Working Families helpline on 0300 012 0312 or use our advice contact form.


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