Last year, my wife Haruka and I decided to study for an MPP at the Blavatnik School: it was an unforgettable moment in our life as a family, especially as we brought our two-year-old daughter Maho with us to Oxford. Balancing between study and childcare can be a bit tricky, but it is definitely something worth trying, and we have learned a lot along the way.
1. First step, finding a nursery
The first thing on our list was finding childcare service. We faced two main difficulties: no vacancies and no information about location or quality. We had planned to move to Oxford in July to attend an English course at the University’s Language Centre, but almost all the nurseries were full at that time. The other problem was that we could only search for information online. We were concerned about making such an important choice with such little information – Maho could neither speak English nor Japanese at that time: what if the nursery does not treat her properly…? She would not be able to complain about it, and we might not be able to detect it.
However, the University of Oxford’s child care team offers a map of nurseries in the city and Ofsted, the UK’s public education inspector, provides quality rating. After finding these information sources, we felt much better about our daughter’s nursery. We were also told that more places became available with the start of the new academic year. Our daughter attended a slightly remote nursery during summer, but in September we were able move her to a nursery on the way to the School.
Maho’s experience in the nursery served our academic interests in social policy too. Haruka chose social policy in the 21st century as an optional module, and now we are confident that early intervention for children’s development is important for social integration!
2. Life at the Blavatnik School
Balancing both study and childcare is not easy, but it is manageable. The enemy of parenting and childcare is always an “unexpected event.” Before studying at Oxford, we were both working in the Japanese government. At the time, we were very nervous every evening because all it needed was just one phone call, a delayed meeting, or even the never ending chats of some clients, to make it impossible to be at the nursery on time. But at the Blavatnik School everything was scheduled in advance. We would know how much we had to read for class every week, our deadlines for essays, when exams are scheduled, as well as the dates of the official events at the School or our colleges. Sometimes, there were meetings for group assignments after nursery time, but our classmates were very understanding of our situation and let us go back home if necessary.
To secure time to study and enjoy student life, we took it in turns to take care of Maho during weekdays. For example, one day I would go to the nursery to pick her up, prepare dinner, bathe her, etc. while Haruka would stay at the library and study or attend a formal dinner at college. On the next day, we would swap roles. We found that a few free nights a week and free time after Maho’s bedtime were enough. We did not feel we were falling behind with coursework at all. The only problem came when Maho was ill with a cold or flu. Thankfully the Blavatnik School’s lectures are recorded and can be screened later upon request. We were also allocated different seminars and we could look after Maho in turns. The School is well equipped with childcare facilities such as high chairs in the cafe or baby change units in the toilets, and most importantly everyone was always very welcoming with our daughter, so we sometimes brought her to school and waited for one our classes to finish.
In our class there were more than ten students with children. We built family-wide friendships, sharing childcare experiences and future career concerns as working parents. Having friends with whom to share experiences, as well as concerns, was very helpful and reassuring for us.
3. Enjoying life in Oxford
Oxford is a fantastic place for a family with small kids. Within walking distance you can see horses, cows, geese and squirrels. My daughter loved a big tree just outside of our flat, on which she could see pigeons and squirrels. Also, there are a lot of family events such as classical music concerts, theatre shows for children and other family-friendly activities.
As far as we can remember, the only events that we could not bring Maho to were the formal dinners. Other than that, we brought her anywhere: to the pub with our classmates, to the restaurant for dinner, to college lunch (Haruka’s college, Kellogg, was happy to accept children for lunch or weekend brunch) and Blavatnik School events as well. It was surprising to see that our daughter was even welcomed to a reception party with some high-level guests!
We clearly remember an event that took place immediately after the Brexit vote, when our Dean, Professor Ngaire Woods, said to a mother who was about to leave because her baby kept crying: “Please stay in this room and let her listen, because this talk is very important for her future”. Her warm words were an indication of the School’s attitude of care for future generations.
4. A positive experience for the whole family
Of course, one option would have been for one of us to stay at home with our daughter to support the other’s study. It might have been easier to manage. But luckily, because we both got offers to study for the MPP, as well as the Japanese government’s scholarships, we decided to take the challenge. As a result, there were a lot of benefits of studying together.
Firstly, we were never bored. We had an exciting time as individuals, getting back into student’s life and also as a couple, discussing course work at the dinner table. Secondly, we are sure that this year has had a significant influence on Maho. Because both of us were studying, our daughter was very involved in the School’s life. She is too small to remember the experiences she had, but we are sure that they have somehow left a positive mark in her.
The Blavatnik School’s students are a hugely diverse group, not only for nationality but also for experience. If you are in the middle of your career and have children, you are likely to understand how important it is for policy making to benefit future generations and your experience will definitely be a great addition to the BSG community.
Yasushi and Haruka Aoyama both studied at the Blavatnik School of Government (MPP Class of 2015). They are currently pursing another degree at University College London and will return to Japan where they will re-start working as civil servants in the government next year.