Steve Mynard considers the educational tradition of the six week summer holiday, and asks if it is, and whether it should be, under threat
Along with every other teacher in the country I know exactly how many more days I have to work until the summer holiday! This time of year is very busy; sports day needs organising, I am writing reports, there was the Foundation Stage Profile to finish and send electronically to county, induction, transfer arrangements and so on. It has been quite enjoyable doing all of this as a class teacher again; after all this hard work there is the sudden collapse into the relative calm of the summer holiday to look forward to.
When I was a head I always made sure the life of the school was carefully planned so I got a proper break in the summer. I would line up any redecorating work that needed doing well in advance and used a reliable local firm who I knew would just get on with the job. I would spend a couple of days in school at the beginning of the holiday ensuring the deep clean was done and shutting the place down. I would have three days in school at the end of the summer holiday getting everything ready for the start of the new school year. This effectively left me with five clear weeks in the middle to do exactly what I pleased. After some experimenting I settled on a week of doing things around the house and then a couple of weeks’ family holiday abroad. A couple more weeks of days trips and gardening and I would return to school refreshed in September.
When I started teaching nearly 20 years ago I always felt I had to justify my long summer holiday to friends and family. I heard some teachers claiming that they did a lot of school work during the summer break and wondered if I wasn’t diligent enough because I did none. I used to try and explain to people that I didn’t just work from 9.00 to 3.30 during term time, but after a few years I gave up – people like to take a poke at us because of our holidays; that’s just the way things are. I know I work 45 hours a week during term time and that my holidays are time off in lieu of overtime – I don’t have to justify my breaks to anyone else!
Every teacher knows the history behind our long summer holiday: it’s so the children can go off and help with the harvest. The school I was head of had a log book that went back to the 1860s. Right up until the second world war there were certain times when large numbers of children were off helping with the potato harvest or rouging wild oats. There were other times when the school was closed because there was no coal or snow prevented the children from outlying hamlets walking the three miles to school across the fields!
Times have changed and some would have it that the six-week break is no longer necessary from an agricultural point of view or desirable from an economic point of view. In May this year BBC News Online headlined with: ‘Long school holidays in England should be cut to prevent children falling behind in class.’ Most of the papers ran with it: readers like a bit of teacher-knocking in the run-up to the summer holiday. The background came from a report by the Institute for Public Policy Research, which suggested pupils’ reading and maths abilities regressed because the summer break was too long. The IPPR recommend that the school year could have five eight-week terms, with a month off in the summer and two-weeklong breaks between each of the other terms.
This suggestion doesn’t actually sound too bad and it highlights another issue, which has been running for more than 10 years – the idea of a six-term year. Most counties now have some form of six-term year in place, but effectively it is in name only – nothing much has really changed in the last decade.
Sometimes the call for a revised structure to the school year uses reverse psychology. There have been claims that shorter terms and more frequent breaks would reduce the strain on teachers and pupils! Truth be told the ‘business as usual’ approach will most likely be with us for some years yet – teachers have called for industrial action in the past when anyone threatened to touch our long break and with half a million teachers we do still have some clout.
The last perk
With all the stress and strain of being a teacher the long summer holiday is like a safety valve. You know from your own experience that this is true. Everyone comes back from the summer break feeling refreshed and teacher absence is low until about the end of October. By then teachers’ immune systems are on the ebb due to the everyday stress of teaching and they are more susceptible to any bugs that are around. The same illness peak happens in the summer term as we are so busy. Viewed in this context the summer break is absolutely vital! One teacher I saw quoted described his long summer holiday as the ‘last perk of teaching’.
I’ll leave the last word with some of the children who responded to the CBBC Newsround question, ‘Are school holidays too long?’ Nicola, aged 11, said, ‘Holidays are not too long. It gives your brain a rest. You also have time to spend with friends and family and go on holidays. Holidays rule!’ Caitlin, aged 10, says, ‘I like the way the school holidays are. Six weeks is fine, it gives you a rest from your SATs.’
Steve Mynard is a former headteacher and editor of Primary Headship