There is nothing better guaranteed to raise my blood pressure than a report that school holidays are yet again under threat.
I’m tired of these vital reservoirs being described as a "perk" by commentators who have never taught a lesson in their lives, and have certainly never withstood a demanding half-term like this one. Worse still, they have forgotten – or misremembered – the joy of holidays.
As a child, I lived for the summer, when I could go to the beach with friends, or read, cast adrift from the tyranny of the school timetable. At a time when we have serious concerns about pupils’ wellbeing, the last thing we should do is take away their uncluttered time. To add weeks and evenings to their schooling would be more like a detention than a supportive measure.
This year’s long summer holiday will be all the more necessary because of the stressful uncertainty that has preceded it. Teachers and pupils need to be liberated from their screens and the increased workload that online learning has imposed on everyone.
Coronavirus: Adding to one of the highest workloads in the world
At great risk to life and limb (his), my son once claimed that he worked longer hours in a year in his administrative role than I did in my teacherly one. We came to the interesting conclusion that he worked more days, because of the structure of his weeks, but I worked more hours, because of the intensity of the accountability system and the demands it placed on us all. And that was before the lockdowns.
Pre-lockdown, UK teachers had one of the highest workloads in the world. This past half-term has intensified all aspects of pedagogy, from planning and teaching through to assessment. Not to mention the many ways in which the profession has stepped in to run tests and substitute yet again for the exam boards.
For these reasons alone, the holiday bandits – among whose number Robert Halfon, chair of Commons Education Select Committee, must be counted – should be stopped in their tracks. We need to do this in order to avoid one of the largest exoduses from the profession ever, as a result of burnout. The current buoyant recruitment and retention figures won’t be sustainable once other graduate professions reopen their office doors.
Shorten the summer holiday and the job is instantly less viable. The summer holiday is no longer the perk it supposedly was. Where else could we find uncluttered time to create new resources and expand our own professional knowledge in an already overstuffed academic year?
The facile, emotionally blind thinking that promotes the idea of longer days and shorter holidays is seriously at fault. It comes from the same puritanical source as the accountability police who’ve managed to turn every single exam specification – and, by extension, key stage 3 – into a joyless slog.
Sacrificing teachers on the altar of politics
Quite rightly, we are all anxious, as the lockdowns result in economic downturns. But how helpful is the apocalyptic report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies in which it is asserted that lost learning during Covid could cost children £350 billion in lost future earnings? Or the oft-quoted statistic from Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman that one day of national school closure costs 40,000 child years of education in total?
Of course, the assumption behind all this statistical catastrophising is that children will be fresh as a daisy every single minute of every single school day. They will never have time off for illness. Their moods will always be sunny, and they will be receptive to all the learning that is put their way. In short, there is an assumption that any “lost learning” would have taken place in ideal conditions all the time.
Actually, real education is not quite like that, because of the inequalities that have been permitted to persist for many decades.
The current handwringing is a poor substitute for all the effort that should have gone into improving housing and internet access over the years, ensuring that no one was digitally impoverished. It’s so much easier to be seen to be doing something by incarcerating exhausted children and teachers in hot classrooms over the summer and into the evenings.
Meanwhile, independent-school pupils have longer holidays and achieve results that are at least as good as those of the state-sector counterparts.
And are our primary school pupils really falling so far behind? My cousins in Holland didn’t start their formal education until they were 6 – just like a lot of other European countries. They don’t seem to have suffered. In fact, it may well be that we try to make children read too early, and put some off because they aren’t quite ready.
So let’s not sacrifice the wellbeing of pupils and teachers – not to mention exhausted headteachers and support staff – on the altar of political catastrophising to support a dubious economic agenda.
Instead, let’s acknowledge that everyone in the education community has endured the consequences of poor government decision-making. Not only that, but they will still have a lot more to achieve in the next year, if 2020-2021 is anything to go by.
In the meantime, it’s vital to use this half-term break to practise all the skills of relaxation and recuperation, so that we'll be well-equipped to make the most of the summer holiday.
Yvonne Williams has spent nearly 34 years in the classroom, and 22 years as a head of English. She has contributed chapters on workload and wellbeing to Mentoring English Teachers in the Secondary School, edited by Debbie Hickman (Routledge)