How to keep those balls in the air

17th January 2003 at 00:00
The 24-Hour Family: a parent's guide to work-life balance By Polly Ghazi The Women's Press pound;9.99

"Don't agonise - organise". The Women's Press published this slogan of the women's movement long ago. It is very much the driving force behind Polly Ghazi's book.

As Ghazi reports, research into company programmes to encourage work-life balance in both the United States and Britain has recorded "a host of concrete benefits" including increased productivity, less absenteeism, lower staff turnover, less money spent on recruitment and training, reduced employee stress and greater loyalty.

Ghazi has set out to provide a handbook for change. This book is firmly geared to parents, not women, and challenges the attitudes and practices that lead to the creeping despair which in turn makes adults settle for "a lifestyle based on poor relationships" rather than struggle through the maze to a better work-life balance. She uses research from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and from a wide variety of other organisations to support her case and to give her readers a clear way forward.

Ours is an ageing population. A point Ghazi mentions, though she does not follow it up, is that, faced with problems in adjusting work and "life", one in five women under 30 said they did not want children. The subtext of this book makes it depressingly clear why they might say that. Ghazi describes in her introduction the "myriad pressuresI overwork, job-related anxietyI childcareI academic pressure I getting Johnny to his football practice and Sarah to her dance class", and so on.

We need children; we need a satisfying future for all of us. If this book supports a significant proportion of parents in pushing for better choices for themselves and their families, we will all benefit.

Present-day Britain is notorious for its long-hours culture. Equally, it is unusual in being led politically by a family in which both parents work and the youngest child is under three. Ghazi describes a revolution in progress in business and government policy and practice. Government support is being directed at childcare provision, at a wide range of other family-friendly measures and at enabling families on very low incomes to reach a better standard of living.

The thrust of her book is that we all need enough control over our working lives and working hours to be able to balance our commitments happily. More flexible working, in a variety of ways, would often enable parents to do this. And, she reminds us, "The good news is that employers who reject parents' requests out of hand will not be able to do so much longer." (From this April, parents of children under six, or disabled children under 18, will have a new legal right to apply for flexible working arrangements including fewer hours.) In this book, essentially a kit for those who want to adjust their own work-life balance, Ghazi sets out the arguments for more family-friendly policies, describes the existing and forthcoming tax and employment legislation which can support parents, and offers not only a step-by-step programme for approaching employers but a comprehensive list of organisations which can offer support.

I was left with two questions. First, who will read this book? I hope that concerned parents, once they realise that this is a handbook for action, will pick out of it what applies to them. It is written with clarity and focus, and there are some attractive case studies. However, the tax laws are so impenetrable that Ghazi's explanations cannot fully demystify them. And even with all her efforts, the book is not necessarily accessible to someone living in real poverty. Could the Women's Press bring out an eye-catching step-by-step illustrated guide to the key points and contacts, price it at 90p and ensure it sat by every supermarket checkout? More lives might be changed to the enormous benefit of parents and their children.

Second, what is in this book for teachers, in particular the senior staff, who probably suffer some of the most intractable work-life balance problems? As someone who downshifted from a secondary headship to a post as action zone co-ordinator in order to get back a measure of control over my working life, I see Polly Ghazi's book as highlighting issues which every school and local education authority should address. Human-friendly policies affect us all. We in teaching must explore how to make our working lives more flexible and fulfilling. That might mean an even more radical rethink of school terms and the shape of school life than is currently in progress.

Hilary Belden is Excellence in Cities action zone co-ordinator for Ealing and former head of Glenthorne high school in the London borough of Sutton

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