'Holidays are vital to hone pupils' life skills'

Holidays help children to develop soft skills that can't be taught in the classroom, says one head of English and drama

Bucket and Spade

No doubt Esther McVey, the work and pensions secretary, meant well when advocating that teenagers should be using the summer break for holiday work to make themselves more employable. Many journalists have waded in with examples of time spent in shops or factories as rites of passage.

But it would seem that in the current job market such opportunities are limited to the favoured few whose families are in the hotel, leisure and tourism trade, or to those working in retail during the term to cover holidays for regular employees. Fruit picking and sweetcorn plucking openings may still be there.

Those concerned about the paucity of opportunity for improving workplace and life skills should not despair, however, as there are other avenues for honing soft skills, applying curricular knowledge and developing the qualities that will make school pupils more at ease in the wider world beyond academic and vocational learning.

Going away on holiday is a ritual at the heart of modern working life for most, so it’s vital to adapt to the pressures of this new environment.

Long, slow-moving and stationary traffic queues are an almost permanent feature of roads heading towards seaside destinations, for example. Long periods cooped up in the car should be perfect for adapting to more primitive ways of keeping occupied, especially as phone batteries lose charge and, most distressing of all, Wi-Fi signals become intermittent. For the technophile teenager – or adult – this may be disastrous as long periods of isolation wear down their nerves. 

All is not lost, though. For those whose enjoyment lies in reading, there is an instant escape into another world; fantasy novels are thick, detailed, alternative universes where the rules of modern life are bent and broken in increasingly complicated plots.

Learning navigation

During the mobile sections of the journey, there’s the chance to improve map-reading and instructional skills. When your sat-nav is dependent on a phone signal and unreliable in more remote areas, “Bratnav” (as our family christened it) comes into its own. Navigation can be devolved – as it was in my own childhood – to the younger travellers in the car, who can read the map and look out for signs to impart directions as early as possible. And on the rare occasions that you actually get lost, it can be an exercise in ingenuity to rediscover the route.

Alternatively, dormant conversational skills can be revived. This goes not just for whiling away the long and frustrating journey, but also for breakfast time. Networks are not just those initiated and sustained by a series of phone masts across the world.

Face-to-face communication starts in the home. All too often, politicians believe that educational institutions are the only places where pupils learn soft skills. In term time, staggered departure times result in quick bursts of toast-munching over laptops as working parents send e-mails or finalise their plans for the day. So it can be a bit of a shock for the family to be united with no agenda beyond the day’s leisure pursuits.

This is not to say that social media networks are redundant on holiday – far from it. When mild motoring disasters strike – you come to the car park only to find that someone else's car has hit the family vehicle but they've left no note, and there's no CCTV footage – Facebook groups of car enthusiasts can provide helpful information about where to source that near-unobtainable replacement part, and at a reasonable price.

We are deeply indebted to the networking and IT skills of a now grown-up member of the family for putting us on the right track. It just goes to show that not all skills and networks are developed under instruction, and that learning is not always top-down.

Holiday problem-solving skills

For the flexible traveller (i.e., those who have not booked any accommodation in advance), the result can be that the holiday takes on a whole new direction.

In our case, instead of travelling to West Wales, we headed north through incredibly varied and beautiful mountainous scenery on roads not formerly travelled, taking in lakes and moorland as well as the breaker's yard where we found that all-important replacement.

An opportunity to appreciate the sublime is an excellent grounding for reading the Romantics – and teaching them. And for geologists and geographers, there were constantly changing rock formations, as well as the chance (unmissable, I was assured) to see first-hand the longshore drift at the entrance to the Mawddach Estuary.

As for maths, mental arithmetic skills are invaluable in maintaining a balance sheet for travel expenses, accommodation and food, calculating mileage and settling debates over which souvenirs to buy.

A staycation at home is a context even harder to manage. Real stamina is needed to move away from the school routines. Obviously, this is the time to do the chores and home improvements. Surely pupils will be more than happy to do dusting, hoovering and tidying, or to learn a bit about painting and plumbing for when they move away from home. Additionally, they might enjoy the chance to meet friends, chat and arrange their own activities, which will make them more independent.

Enticing as all this flurry of activity may be, perhaps the greatest benefit of the school holiday is the chance to do less and be more. Climate journalists may be looking towards a heatwave summer every two years, but the British climate is rather better at throwing up soggy Augusts. So surely, in the interests of relaxation and wellbeing, the best use of this holiday is to allow the long hot days of the 2018 heatwave to take care of themselves.

Yvonne Williams is a head of English and drama in the south of England. She would like to express her thanks to the North Wales Ford Owners’ Facebook group for their invaluable assistance

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