Work-family life reconciliation issues for parents in Europe

One of the main EPA policy documents highlighting the issues European parents are facing is the Leave of Absence manifesto, dating back to 2009. In this document there are two areas covered in relation to reconciling work and family life, namely

  • on the one hand demanding legal structures and resources guaranteeing that parents can fulfil their parental duties even if they fall to regular working hours,
  • on the other hand demanding for skills and competences learnt during parenting to be acknowledged and recognised for employability.

Bearing this in mind EPA was an active participant of the Alliance for Reconciling Work and Family life headed by Coface in 2014. Unfortunately the Reconciliation Package compiled by Coface is lacking these main areas and as a whole does not clearly reflect our view on reconciliation. For this reason EPA, together with Eurochild, decided not to support the package. As we put a lot of effort in the work of the Alliance and we find this topic very important, we would like to share our ideas on the most urgent reconciliation topics for parents.

The following issues are covering early childhood as a major concern for the EU, but also schooling age (on average 5-18-year-olds), a much longer period in the life of children and their parents. The approach to education is holistic from providing training and support for would-be parents to be successful educators from birth, throughout early childhood and compulsory schooling age, parents and families being successful co-educators with professional service providers and teachers to the successful use of skills acquired throughout this process on the labour market.

Policies and measures that are aiming at reconciling work and family life should be at the heart of Europe’s recovery from crisis. Parents’ access to work is an important part of the solution of getting children out of poverty and social exclusion, but jobs alone are not enough. It is also very important to have a rights-based approach to reconciliation as a whole and measures taken allowing real free choice.

Measures are needed

  • to ensure that jobs are sufficiently paid to give families adequate income,
  • to support working parents to be physically and emotionally available for their children – by flexicurity measures, incentives for employers to offer flexible working hours to support parenting, etc.
  • to provide quality services throughout the whole of childhood, organized according to the joint wishes and needs of children and parents, that allow parents to work, safe in the knowledge that their children are nurtured and educated by caring professionals and/or peer parents they trust, while there is remuneration and quality assurance of the work of these carers,
  • to transform traditional education institutions, schools into autonomous community learning spaces, offering services 0-18-year-olds and everybody else who are lifelong learners in the community, with flexible opening hours, based on the needs of the local stakeholders
  • to support parents financially as well as with trainings and counselling (both professional and peer), by offering services and information as well as by encouraging employers to provide adequate working conditions in order to carry out their duties, rights and responsibilities in raising their children
  • to support a change of paradigm in the setting of the schoolyear to correspond with holiday schemes of employers – to save families from having to provide for children when working while the children are on holiday, but at the same time avoiding a situation when holiday schemes are catering for the needs of the tourist industry and not that of children and families
  • to use school for maximum possible competence building and thus supporting equity and support vulnerable children – including a flexible organisation of work at schools to have climate-adequate schedules and age-adequate activities not to overwhelm children,   
  • to give families real choice in education from full or partial home-schooling to whole-day school, supported by clearly defined, competence based curricula, developed with stakeholders to support the choice of the family and reflect different needs,
  • to support the mobility of families within the EU by harmonisation of basic competence levels throughout the EU
  • to train professional educators for training and involving parents and other family members as well as being able to achieve the full potential of the autonomy of institutions at all levels of education
  • to develop a validation framework of parenting skills to realise and capitalise on their real value on the job market.
Paying attention to these issues will ensure that Europe’s recovery is inclusive and puts the best interest of children at its heart. It is important to underpin early childhood policies with a recognition of children as rights-holders, as required by the UNCRC. We view childhood as an important life-phase in its own right, not solely as a transition to adulthood. In this context, we recognise that education and care must aim towards children’s holistic development and realisation of their full potential.

It is crucial to invest in training, employment schemes and parenting support programmes that can raise not only parents’ qualifications and employability but also help build their parenting skills, their confidence and overall well-being and improve children’s outcomes.

Support for families should be approached in such a way that it recognises children as social actors outside of the family. Children have rights on their own and they cannot always be identified with those of their parents. However all support is to be provided for parents enabling them to carry out their rights, duties and responsibilities in supporting their children in exercising their rights. This rights-based approach has been confirmed in the EC Recommendation Investing in Children.

Most of the the above topics are covered in policy documents listed below as well as other, more specific or specialised communications. However the experiences of the Lisbon strategy has to keep us alert and needs the cooperation of institutions, governments, social partners, CSOs, professionals and all other relevant stakeholders to find a way to reach the targets set by these documents.

The fact that education - early childhood to secondary - is national competence it is the consideration of the member states what measures they implement and what education systems they finance as even the annual review of the EU2020 goals in the European Semester only results in recommendations. While national education systems are treasured by most member states we also have to consider the effect of this heterogeneity on mobility of parents as workforce. Not wanting to endanger the schooling of their children and thus their future is a factor preventing employees in their most flexible yet experienced ages not to be mobile. Thus thinking about a compulsory common European framework for education should be part of a European mobility strategy.

Meanwhile the focus of financial support through Erasmus+, Citizens for Europe, the European Social Fund and other vehicles should consider and focus on the above as these financial incentives are the only available means for the EU to have an effect on national systems.

Present legislative framework
The areas of education – pre-school and school – as well as parenting support have been the competence of member states but a huge number of recommendations and communications by the European Council, the European Commission and the European Parliament are available to provide the framework for a common European policy in this field.

A wide range of reports is available in both fields commissioned by the EP and the EC analysing the progress on European level as well as providing country-level analyses of the situation. The involvement and training of parents has been one of the benchmark indicators of the Quality of Education – regardless the age of the children - since 2001.

The main topics covered by legislation:
-      early childhood education and care – required width and quality of services
-      preventing early school leaving – the role of parents, the role of ECEC and measures to offer education for NEETs
-      quality of school education
-      cooperation of schools
-      supporting families and children with migrant background
-      the role of family in promoting multilingualism
-      certification and labour market validation of skills regardless the place or environment of learning
-      lifelong learning

Relevant legislation include:
Recommendation (2006) on key competences for lifelong learning

However there is no recommendation so far that would encourage employers
-      to support the involvement of parents and family in a wider context in the education of their children by suitable working arrangements
-      to consider parental involvement as part of the lifelong learning process

Article 14 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU (2000/C 364/01) defines education a fundamental right and ensures the rights of parents in this field.

Articles 5 & 18 of the UNCRC, part of the legal system of each EU member defines the upbringing of children the sole right, duty and responsibility of parents and also obliges the states to offer support to parents including (but not only) establishing institutions.

The ET2020 strategic framework of 2009 (2009/C 119/02) contains strategic objectives that are all relevant for finding a balance between professional and family life:
-      3 of the 5 EU2020 headline targets set relevant goals, namely the employment, education and poverty/social exclusion goals.

The Council Conclusions on the role of education and training in the implementation of the Europe 2020 strategy identify the following:
-      measures taken in the education and training sector will contribute to achieving targets in other areas
-      to reduce early school leaving needs prevention and compensatory measures, including better early childhood education, but also individualised support and stronger cooperation with families and local communities
-      to achieve the tertiary education goal incentives are to be introduced to support non-traditional learners, to promote validation, support schemes and guidance services

According to the EU Council’s Conclusions (2011) on early childhood education and care and the Barcelona Targets ECEC services and policies are perceived as beneficial to the development of the children and society on a multiple level. One specific conclusion is that ‘providing a quality service and universal access to quality pre-school education has been identified as one of the preventive policies to combat early school leaving’.

A study commissioned by the EP states that the key to achieving the EU2020 targets and to carry out the ET2020 strategy successfully are
-      sufficient funding supporting sustainable impact, with a multi-disciplinary approach with stakeholder involvement
-      the opinion of the most important stakeholder, namely children/students and parents are to be taken into consideration when developing school and training systems

Another study for the EP on the Barcelona Targets Revisited focuses on child care services in two age groups, 0-2 and 2-compulsory schooling age. It defines early childhood services as provided by professional or other carers, including family members and peers.

The joint decision 2241/2004/EC of the Council and the EP on a single Community framework for the transparency of qualifications and competences sets up a framework for the validation of skills required informally, eg. through parenting practices.

The Agenda for New Skills and Jobs (COM (2010) 682) reinforces the importance of introducing flexicurity (2007), a new type of employment with flexibility and security to overcome the crisis. It provides support for the four elements of flexicurity including flexible and reliable contractual arrangements, comprehensive lifelong learning, including the involvement of stakeholders when defining training needs. It also emphasises the importance of the development of the right skills for the labour market, and supporting the creation jobs in unusual forms, too.

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