Like most busy working mothers, Kirsty Barr has finessed her morning routine. After breakfast she brushes her teeth, inspects herself in the hall mirror and rummages through her handbag. Car keys. Check. Lipstick. Check. Mobile. Check. Finally, at 9am she says goodbye to her two children and rushes out of the door.
Kirsty’s children, Jake and Maisy, are just 12 and ten, but until 5.45 pm, when their parents return from work, they’ll be home alone at the Barrs’ four-bedroom detached house in Buckinghamshire.
For nine hours, they are left to their own devices. They might squabble over whether to watch Lego Friends or The Simpsons on TV, or whether to take a trip to a friend’s house. They might, if they feel like being helpful, clean the kitchen or go to the village shop for their mum.It’s been the same routine for Jake and Maisy since they broke up for their school holidays last month. Despite their ages, Kirsty, 46, believes they are self-sufficient enough to fend for themselves while she holds down her demanding job as director of a communications company. ‘I could afford a nanny but the children are too old to be constantly watched,’ says Kirsty, whose husband Rob, 52, is a security consultant. ‘Besides, I believe being home alone is a character-building experience.’
Experts are less convinced. Recently, children’s charity the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) urged parents to think carefully before leaving children home alone over the school holidays.
The NSPCC says its helpline had 453 calls and emails last summer from adults worried about children who had been left unattended, with three-quarters of those considered serious enough for information to be passed to the police or social services.
‘There are physical risks for children having accidents, but also emotional risks that arise when they feel worried or lonely,’ says NSPCC policy manager Lisa McCrindle.
‘We get calls from children who feel scared if they hear a noise while home alone or watch a serious story on the news, because they find it hard to manage these emotions without an adult present.’
Many people think there is a law determining at what age a child can be left alone, but in fact there is no such law, with the only legal guidelines being that children must not be neglected or abandoned in a way to cause them ‘unnecessary suffering or injury to health’.
Figures obtained following a Freedom of Information Request by the BBC suggest more than 500 people were arrested in 2014-15 in England and Wales for leaving children unattended. The majority of arrests related to children aged ten or younger, but the ages of children involved ranged from six weeks to 15 years.
It is a situation that puts conscientious parents in something of a quandary during the long school holidays.
So is it irresponsible to leave a child at home while they go to work? Or, given the prohibitive costs of childcare, is it an inevitable fact of modern life?
Kirsty is unapologetically in the latter camp. ‘My children mean the world to me and I wouldn’t dream of leaving them if I didn’t think they were capable of looking after themselves,’ she says. ‘But childcare is expensive and they simply don’t need it.
‘If anyone disapproves, they’ve yet to say so to my face. Behind closed doors might be another matter.’
Until recently, holiday cover wasn’t an issue for the Barrs, who for the past nine years have employed nannies at an annual cost of between £20,000 and £30,000 — but in March their latest recruit resigned.
‘If we hired another nanny, she wouldn’t be fulfilled,’ says Kirsty. ‘At their age, the children don’t want someone to watch while they do puzzles, and cost-wise we wouldn’t get a return on our investment.
‘It seemed a natural time to start leaving the children home alone. Their grandparents live too far away to help, and neither of them showed any interest in holiday camps.’
Not that Jake, 12, and Maisy, ten, were necessarily willing participants.
‘At first Maisy was nervous, but said she would be all right as long as she could still talk to me on the phone while I’m working. And she can — within reason.
‘Jake is more reserved, but he reassured me that he would be fine.’
Kirsty calls home to check on her children twice a day and works from home one day a week. It was during the Easter holidays that the youngsters spent their first week at home alone in their picturesque village near Amersham, Bucks. Kirsty, who works four miles away in Chesham, set firm ground rules.
‘They are to keep the front door locked and ask my permission before leaving the house,’ she says. ‘They both have mobile phones, and on their first day they called me ten times to report their every move, which was both frustrating and reassuring. I was daunted, but in time my confidence grew — as did theirs.’
She and Rob, who works 40 miles away, either leave sandwiches out or a pizza for Jake to cook.
‘He is allowed to use the oven but not the gas hob,’ says Kirsty.
She admits that the children’s dietary regime occasionally goes awry. ‘I have come home to discover Maisy has scoffed a packet of Jaffa cakes, and the other day she called to say she’d eaten lunch by 11.30am.
‘But I make it clear that, no matter what, they have to eat our family tea when Rob and I come home.’
Inevitably, there have been other hiccups. ‘Sometimes they call me if they have been arguing — perhaps over what to watch on TV, or when a prank turns sour, such as yesterday when Maisy hid Jake’s socks.
‘I have to counsel them on the phone individually until they’ve calmed down. If they try to contact me when I’m in a meeting, I send a text to say I’ll call them back when I’m free.’
The children are allowed to walk to friends’ homes nearby, to play Pokemon outdoors and to go to the local shop to buy milk if supplies run low.
‘Our village is so small they won’t get lost,’ says Kirsty. ‘They stick together. Jake never leaves his sister for longer than 20 minutes and he knows Maisy must always be able to contact him on his mobile.’