When an article appears in the education press from a parent-journalist decrying the six-week break, you know the holidays are imminent.
Many teachers with children understand the problems of arranging childcare – they are not unsympathetic about the difficulties faced by other parents needing to child cover at inconvenient times.
But this does not mean teachers should be apologetic. Schools are educational establishments that are tasked with the teaching of children from the age of three (if starting at a school nursery) to 18. That they also provide a secure place for parents to deposit children while at work is a by-product, not the central purpose, of the service that is offered.
Nevertheless, many schools do provide wrap-around care in the school term, often from 8am until 6pm. Some places even run holiday clubs for part of the summer break.
While some parents in other occupations are concerned about finding ways of filling the time with their offspring, teachers and school staff are looking forward to re-bonding with their families. If educational professionals also get to take a holiday abroad then that’s a bonus, given the extortionate cost of summer travel.
Modern critics often justify their call for a shorter summer holiday by arguing that we no longer follow an agricultural year. And yet the shape of an academic cycle has not changed. The planting of knowledge begins in September and the harvest of grades is due in August. With such high stakes qualifications taken in May and June, it can’t be otherwise.
During the school term, teachers work late into the night and at weekends. They often have to shut themselves off from the rest of the family to get the preparation for the week ahead done.
It’s not just the length of the working day that’s the issue. Working with thirty pupils in one-hour slots following in quick succession, fulfilling duties and running clubs in the lunch hour and after school, attending competitions – all of these add up to over 50 hours a week on average and feed high levels of exhaustion.
Each year the pressure is more intense than it has ever been. Half-term breaks are so easily erodible because of the imminence of high pressure internal and external examinations, which impact so heavily on inspection and league table outcomes. How many teachers sacrifice days of their holidays putting in extra research to enhance the last few lessons before the exams, or to put together numerous revision aids or booster pieces?
Operating at such high intensity is unsustainable for teachers and pupils all year round. It’s hardly surprising that some teachers only see their children through a haze of exhaustion where even the bedtime story is almost too much effort.
The current climate makes it well-nigh impossible for any teacher to say no to incursions into their time. The clause in teachers’ contracts that allows schools to add anything it deems reasonable to the workload makes it so.
Therefore some substantial time is – and should continue to be – officially set aside.
The only really quiet period in the year is at the end of July and throughout August, when there are no exams to be sat. Teachers can finally unwind and regenerate their enthusiasm and will to teach. Six weeks to get back some semblance of normality, to spend real recreational time on themselves and with non-teaching friends and family is a fair recompense for the excessive demands of the previous ten months.
The six-week summer break is one of the few attractions left for people coming into or continuing in the profession. It’s the carrot dangled in front of teachers’ eyes when more effort and time are demanded. Take away this last significant incentive and it’s much harder to justify the work overload imposed through the year.
Our lives may no longer be dominated by the agricultural year but the cycle of preparation and exams still follows the same intensive pattern. In order to guarantee both pupils and teachers a substantial uninterrupted period of leisure, the six-week break should remain sacrosanct.
Yvonne Williams is a head of English at a school in the south of England