How are your summer holidays going? Not too much work done yet, I trust: and no popping into school.
There is something disingenuous in this admonition. After all, in the midst of the holiday period, here I am writing about education. Even at the tail end of my career, perhaps I’m still so entirely a teacher that I can’t quite switch off.
Why, otherwise, would I get embroiled in the small row that developed, barely a week into the school holidays, about children and holiday jobs? Work and pensions secretary Esther McVey declared in The Daily Telegraph that children should get holiday jobs: “a ‘drastic’ decline in the number of teenagers taking holiday jobs is leaving the nation’s youth ill-prepared for the workplace,” she claimed, adding that, “holiday jobs give young people ‘essential skills’ that make them more employable and better-paid in adulthood".
BBC Radio 4’s World at One programme brought on Sir Anthony Seldon, vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham and previously master of Wellington College, who pleaded that we allow young people a proper break and rest over the holidays: they do so much during term time, he insisted.
The debate continued. Max Hastings wrote in The Times about his youthful summer holidays. He hated his school days (I don’t need to name his alma mater here), so he longed for the holidays. For him, “From the age of 15 onwards, my own happiest holidays were spent selling ice cream for Lyons at Olympia’s exhibitions and Bertram Mills’ circus.”
I wish employment ministers would get over their obsession with “workplace experience”. My children were, indeed, grateful for their school work experience – but only for putting them off the careers they’d been considering. There’s only so much photocopying and coffee-making that a 16-year-old can stand, and such periods are frequently far from reflecting real working life.
Give the pupils a break
So what are school holidays for? Academically minded sixth-formers may be devoting time this summer to working on their EPQ submission: the Extended Project Qualification is worth half an A level and, we’re assured, valued by universities, because the EPQ is based on university-style research (though few are yet making offers including it). Indeed, the work is judged more on the quality of the research and of the methods adopted than on the content of the final piece.
Other kids will spend some of their holidays working, perhaps taking badly paid work in catering or tourism. Some jobs are tedious and can attract only teenagers to do them, albeit for a short period: nonetheless, they’ll hopefully enjoy their foray into temporary work.
When you’re young and start a job, there’s pride and satisfaction in earning a pay packet, even if it doesn’t amount to much. And there is something essentially grown-up about working alongside adults. It’s essentially “real world”, and exciting to a youngster.
Visiting a former colleague the other day, my wife bumped into her 15-year-old son, who towered over her. “What are you doing this week?” she enquired. He answered with a huge grin: “Nothing!” Good for him! There is still room for childhood, even in the teenage years, and a virtue in simply unwinding and doing very little.
Neither tiger parents nor over-eager employment ministers should badger children to use every second of their downtime productively. We all need to relax: even (or especially) teachers on holiday should by this stage be concentrating on lazing about and generally vegetating. Yes, we can visit family, tackle the garden and read the books we’ve been meaning to read all year: but mere slobbing around is important, too.
Please don’t wish ceaseless purposeful activity on children this summer: nor forbid them to get a job. Let them choose! In short, give them, and ourselves, a break.
Dr Bernard Trafford is a writer, educationalist and musician. He is a former headteacher of the Royal Grammar School, Newcastle, and past chair of HMC. He is currently interim headteacher of the Purcell School in Hertfordshire. He tweets @bernardtrafford