Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Why we need our summer holidays...

Ahh, summer on Bognor Beach

I’m a bit poorly at the moment. I’ve spent some of the last few weeks in hospital, with an illness that is more often linked with people in their latter years than a normally-healthy 28 year old.

Or it can be linked with someone who’s a bit stressed.

I’ve mentioned before how much I love my job – it’s truly no exaggeration that I am in my dream school. I love it! But that doesn’t take away the fact that I work (at the very minimum) 60 hours a week, and very often more.

So the news that Michael Gove was intent on dismantling the current school term system was just one more attack in his self-declared ‘war’ against us teachers. Despite my ongoing seething rage at the current plans to destabilise my pay and progression structure , the dismantling of funding for Early Years which will store up troubles I will need to unravel when students arrive to my classroom aged 11,  the poking around with the GCSEs I have been working my socks off teaching, not to mention the removal of my professional status by allowing for unqualified teachers to remain so, you might think I would be too exhausted to be worrying about one more thing. Indeed, the right-wing rhetoric would probably say that if I have all this time to get angry, I am not working hard enough. But, I am.

My summer holiday is my reward for the year’s work; for leaving the house whilst it’s still dark and my husband’s still asleep. For the unending evenings spent not seeing friends or family, but planning the next day’s lessons. For the lost Sundays marking endless essays. Indeed, my job is to plan lessons and mark the books. But I am well aware, too, that it’s not in my job description to feel guilty whenever I spend time doing something that isn’t working. Most of my friends are teachers. A quick straw-poll confirms I am not alone in feeling as though I could – SHOULD – be working all the time. So, my summer holidays are my time to recharge my batteries. To do those things I don’t get the chance to do in the school year or the shorter holidays (which are often taken up with extra classes or going into work anyway); creating interactive displays, thinking deeply about how I can incorporate new pedagogies into my practice, looking at new technology.

So far, so selfish, I guess. That last paragraph was a bit  me me me. So, here are my other thoughts on why the summer holiday system needs to remain broadly the same.

Gove is (whisper it!) perfectly right in saying that the school calendar runs parallel to the harvests, when our children no longer need to be in the fields giving a helping hand. However, he fails to take into account the importance of time spent with siblings, with family members, indeed, time to ‘be bored’.  I was incensed by Sarah Vine’s sycophantic article declaring that the long summer holidays were a feminist issue; certainly aside from the spurious issue of childcare being ‘women’s work’, it certainly highlights the need for affordable, quality, non-academic provision. I could go on in a fairly dogmatic vein about how reducing the long holiday simply frees up the parents to work more and more. This ties in well with the incessant calls for us to ‘win the global race’ (Where to? Where from?) but I think it’s about more than that; our kids – and teachers – need time to recharge, to be themselves, and to follow their own pursuits. It makes for more rounded people.

My next point addresses the problems of those parents with students in different schools. What price the worry and hassle of having to sort out care for two, three, four, or more children?  Granted, many siblings share a secondary school; but there are few schools providing all ‘all-through’ (3-18) education. It just doesn’t seem workable. Indeed, Nottingham City Council has already shelved plans for a 5-term school year, with teachers and parents alike branding it ‘disruptive’. In a family of three children, how is it fair that two of the three should spend holidays together, whilst the other languishes in a sweltering classroom, only to spend his or her holiday alone when everyone else is back at school or has used up their leave?
I’m also interested in Gove’s harking to the success of East Asian schools, and their longer days and shorter holidays. If this is indeed wildly successful, why is it that up to 72% of final year high school students in Hong Kong supplement their education with private tutors? This isn’t intended to be rhetorical; I am genuinely asking how this can be an indicator of the successful impact of shorter holidays. I found information about Finnish summer holidays surprisingly difficult to get hold of – but certainly I can find no evidence to suggest that the success of Finnish education is down to limited holidays.

Many leading academics disagree with Gove on this point too – notwithstanding the vitriol he has poured upon them. Brian Lightman, GS of the Association for School and College Leavers has stated that the plans to shorten the holidays run the risk of becoming a ‘free for all’.

I think the crux of my argument for maintaining school summer holidays is this; forget about the teachers’ need. Students today are being prepared for a world in which there is more pressure and less reward than ever before. They are being prepared for jobs which don’t even exist yet. They are being pushed harder and harder during their time in school, whilst at the same time being fed the rhetoric that GCSEs are worthless. They deserve that time off. Being regimented, and pushed, and disciplined happens enough in later life – surely being a child is about having fun?