Stop those summer days drifting away

Advocates of shorter school breaks take heed: many teachers use this valuable time off to volunteer or improve their skills

John Greenlees

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Summer holidays are too long, too generous and no longer appropriate for a 21st-century education system. Such are the key arguments for shorter breaks for teachers and the introduction of summer curricular and staff development programmes.

At a time of economic austerity, these attitudes and arguments have gained greater weight, with advocates too often unaware of the positive activities that many teachers undertake during the summer months.

Indeed, England's education secretary Michael Gove has recently relaxed the rules surrounding the three-term system with the expectation that the long break should shrink.

Speaking at an education conference organised by magazine The Spectator in London earlier this year, Gove argued that a longer school day would be more family-friendly and "consistent with the pressures of a modern society" - and added that a shorter summer holiday would help the UK to keep up with high-performing East Asian nations.

"I remember half-term in October, when I was at school in Aberdeen, was called the tattie holiday, the period when kids would go to the fields to pick potatoes," he said. "It was also at a time when the majority of mums stayed home. That world no longer exists and we can't afford to have an education system that was essentially set in the 19th century."

But such arguments fail to take into account the hugely important role that summer holidays play in the development of the teaching profession and its ability to inspire children in the UK, as well as what teachers can offer deprived children elsewhere in the world during the long break.

Take, as just one example, a teacher from Lanarkshire in Scotland who is spending her summer vacation helping homeless children in India. It is the sixth year in a row that this teacher has travelled to India to help teach disadvantaged street children to read and write. Scottish teachers are also undertaking invaluable voluntary work in impoverished parts of Africa and Central America.

As well as helping to educate children, teachers are able to pass on classroom skills and knowledge to peers in countries that cannot afford well-developed teacher training programmes.

Younger teachers are particularly keen to use the summer break to travel and help out in disadvantaged parts of the world. A few years ago, I worked with a student teacher who had spent the summer as a volunteer in Tanzania passing on his information and communications technology know-how to teachers and older students.

A sizeable number of teachers, too, do all sorts of voluntary work nearer to home in, for example, charity shops or as helpers for disabled people on pilgrimages to Lourdes and Rome. One workaholic colleague, still in his twenties, spends the summer working many additional hours for the Samaritans, a charity in the UK and Ireland that provides assistance to people experiencing emotional distress.

Window on the world

Teachers devoting their summers to voluntary work make excellent role models for students, who may be inspired to take a gap year that involves helping those less privileged than themselves.

Voluntary work also enhances practitioners' own professional and personal development. The experience of travelling and working in challenging and unstructured environments, for example, helps to develop useful problem- solving and management skills. Volunteering, one practitioner says, makes you a better teacher and a happier, more contented person.

And voluntary work certainly makes a real difference to those who receive the help and support of these ambassadors of goodwill. It is those teachers who do so much to positively define and improve the image of our profession.

The long summer break also provides teachers with opportunities to embark on trips that enhance their professional knowledge and skills.

Pamela Kurilla, a religious education teacher, for example, used five of her summer vacations to visit temples in Japan and other parts of Asia to extend her knowledge of Buddhism and oriental religions. Students in her classroom, which is decorated with photographs of the people and places she has encountered on her travels, benefit from her first-hand knowledge and experiences.

When I first qualified as a geography teacher and discovered that rainforests were a key topic, I decided the best way to develop my interest in and understanding of these important habitats was to spend time in them. A highly informative trip was possible only because of the long summer break.

Two colleagues - one a physical education teacher, the other a geography specialist - are spending four weeks of their summer break cycling the route of the Tour de France. This will enhance their fitness levels, self- esteem and professional development - and raise a sizeable sum for charity.

And, of course, numerous modern foreign languages teachers spend time abroad practising the languages they teach. Similarly, many art, design and other specialists travel to places where they can extend the very knowledge and skills they are required to impart.

Experience of overseas working and travelling earns teachers additional respect from students, who benefit from their first-hand knowledge of places, people and global issues.

A reliable supply of teachers is crucial to our country's future. An adventurous and caring profession, with time and opportunities to undertake important and interesting activities, is more likely to secure that supply.

Sure, teachers have time to enjoy lazy beach holidays and other trips, and to recharge their batteries, but any discussions about shortening their summer break should take into account the fine work that more than just a few of them undertake during the summer "holidays".

John Greenlees is a secondary school teacher in Scotland

Photo credit: Getty

Win a holiday

The TES has launched a survey to find out how teachers spend the long summer break. Do you work? Read up on subject matter? Revise curriculum changes? Tell us and you could win a holiday to the Azores.

For further details, visit www.tesconnect.comwin-a-holiday.

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John Greenlees

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