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Employers step in to ease parents' school holiday headache

The thought of the school holidays, of idle days doing nothing, might be every child's dream, but for many parents, keeping children occupied on those long days can be a nightmare. 

In an effort to help families and retain valuable staff, a number of companies are  running school holiday programs on site. Some of the schemes are funded by the businesses, while others require families to pay.

The programs have been welcomed by hard-pressed parents.

Nathan Jones says he and his wife, Nikki, had struggled to find things for their three children to do during the school holidays – especially as they have no family in Melbourne. 

The couple resorted to booking the children – all aged under 10 – into costly holiday programs or school camps.

"It just created complexities," Mr Jones says. "You have to drop them off somewhere different. Often the hours are slightly different [from work], and you have to request a bit of flexibility from work."

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In 2013, his employer, Insurance Australia Group, started a program of school holiday care at six of its offices, including 110 places in its William Street office in Melbourne.  

The company's group general manager, people and culture, Gillian Folkes, says Kids@IAG was introduced to help their employees juggle the logistics of organising and finding affordable childcare during the school holidays.

"There are 12 weeks of school holidays annually, and while most parents use their four weeks of annual leave a year, there's often a month's gap where parents rely on paid care, family, friends or unpaid leave to care for their children," Ms Folkes says.

Run by Guardian Early Learning Group, the program, for children aged between five and 12, is subsidised by the insurance group, with parents asked to donate $5 per child if they wish. 

As part of the program, children get to take part in excursions, including visits to the cinema and museums, and board games. 

Leanne Giardina, director of Community Child Care, a body for community-owned long-day care and outside-school-hours care in Victoria, has welcomed the trend.

"The number of families needing vacation care is increasing, because obviously the number of weeks that parents have for annual leave, versus how many weeks schools shut down, far outweighs," she says. "So parents do need that support." 

Scott Bull, director of  OSHClub, runs on-site holiday programs for companies including WorkSafe Victoria, Seek and KPMG.

Mr Bull says interest in the initiative has picked up over the past two years. 

"I think the more progressive companies ... are looking to provide their staff with work-life balance," he says.

But, he says, businesses need access to large indoor, as well as outdoor, space to run the program.

YMCA has been running  a school holiday program for Department of Education and Training staff in its Treasury precinct offices since 2013.

A department spokesman says that on an average 22 children attend each day.

"This great program is one of the many ways we support working parents, and it helps create a workplace environment where employees are happy, engaged and can maintain a healthy work-life balance,'' he says.

YMCA early learning, childcare and out-of-school hours director Sarah Marshall says the organisation has experienced an increase in the number of inquiries from employers seeking to provide school holiday care. 

Parents Victoria executive officer Gail McHardy says that not all parents have access to a wider support group during the school holidays.

"Employers recognising this as a support to families and reducing stress for the parents is helpful," she says.

For Mr Jones, having the school holiday program at his work means he gets to spend more time with his children. 

"We have lunch together every day, " he says. "They get to see where Daddy works, and who he works with; they get to meet my colleagues.

"It is a great initiative. It certainly makes the company attractive [to work for]."