A British teacher swapped her brolly for a beach umbrella after moving to the sun-and-sangria belt to take up a job as children's clubs supervisor for a large travel company. Geraldine Brennan finds the pace is hot on Ibiza.
Jo Frusher has always had a palm tree with her name on it. She made one to hold up the rainforest canopy in her old classroom in a Lincolnshire primary school. In her new island-hopping job in some of Spain's busiest resorts on the Balearics, palm trees are 10 a peseta and school holidays are when the pressure peaks.
As full-time adviser to the travel company Thomson, Jo oversees the content of the children's programme offered in 15 resorts on Majorca, Minorca and Ibiza. The Activ clubs set up by Thomson last year as part of its "Superfamily" package offer two-hour sessions of activities for young holidaymakers in three age groups, and a drop-in service, six days a week. At the height of the season, there's barely time for the children's reps, who organise art and crafts sessions, sports, storytelling and imaginative play, to fill the glue pots before the next group piles in.
Jo first heard of Activ when she met some Thomson staff at a barbecue a year ago. In February, she left John Harrow primary in Malton, Lincolnshire, where she got her first job in 1992 after graduating from the College of Ripon and York St John with a BEd in English. Since then she has taught Years 3 to 6 and been co-ordinator of history, then RE and finally numeracy. The only child of a Cambridgeshire farmer and a legal secretary, she became attracted to teaching in her early teens - "I baby-sat for some teachers, who thought I had a good rapport with children" - and considered leaving only when she turned 30 last year and wanted to try something new.
"I went straight from the sixth form to college to school, and I think you need to bring the outside world into your classroom," she says. "I loved my school, I had great support there and I was able to teach rather than discipline, but it was time for a move. I thought about looking elsewhere for a deputy's job, but it seemed like more stress and less contact with children, and there was not a lot of financial incentive once I'd got through the threshold."
By Easter, she had done her training at Thomson headquarters in London and was on a plane to Majorca. She sat behind David Blunkett, who was then Education Secretary and spends holidays on the island, and toyed with telling him the other reason she had left teaching: "Everything in schools has become so controlled, with so much paperwork. People need more flexibility to perform well."
The children's reps Jo coaches and motivates have to be flexible. Twenty children may come through the clubhouse door for each session, or perhaps three, or as many as the room can hold. There are new faces most days, and children might return every day for a fortnight, or (rarely) not at all. Jo performs like a peripatetic LEA adviser, spending at least a day a month at each club, two or three days if staff need extra support. She lives out of a suitcase except for her time on Ibiza, where she has an apartment.
Some aspects of the job aren't a million miles from life at John Harrow. There's a uniform, for a start: Jo doesn't mind wearing it since she received a dispensation that allows her to substitute navy shorts for the prescribed cheerleader-style skirt.
No national curriculum, but there's "The Book", the blueprint for the Activ programme devised by Gary Pope, also a former teacher. The activities outlined in this children's reps' bible have inspiring titles such as "Message in a Bottle", "We've Found Remains" and "Space Club", with an emphasis on taking children on "journeys of the imagination" through time and space, on getting out of the clubhouse for treasure trails and beachcombing, on delving into the history of the various resorts (this counteracts the potential sun-and-poolside, ice-cream blandness of the experience).
The manual offers only guidelines for each activity, expecting the children's reps to make them work off the page, tailoring them to their resort's layout and that day's participants. "The children lead the way and it is the role of the children's representative to facilitate their thinking," says The Book. Exciting stuff, but not always easy to achieve.
"Activ is demanding: it commits the children's reps to creating the programme themselves," says Jo. "They have to respond to each new child but be prepared for any eventuality. The level of discipline is not the same as in school, but it has to be there - you have to have order and organisation."
Most reps (a team of five to 10 at each resort) are aged between 18 and 21 and have level 3 GNVQs in a related subject such as travel and tourism or childcare. A few have NNEB qualifications. They all want to see the world - and have bags of energy, which they need for their minimum 48-hour weeks. They can all cope with slaving away while everyone in sight is on holiday.
As well as the Activ programme, they run children's entertainment (film shows, talent shows, mini-discos, slumber parties) until 11pm some days, and breakfast clubs to give parents a lie-in. They have all had "pro-Activ" training, which covers child psychology, storytelling, health and safety and other basics. The Book offers briefings on child-friendly topics - Harry Potter (eight pages); Pokemon (one page); the stars of Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United (one page) - to help them maintain their cred with the punters. But they look to Jo for a teacher's skills, "how to tell when interest is flagging and move on, how to see which activities work well, which ones need tweaking and which ones you will never get to work for your club". She has trained the reps to make "activity cards" (lesson plans) for each chunk of the Activ programme, to save repeating mistakes or reinventing the wheel.
Her job is unique: she has been posted initially to the resorts with the highest concentration of new-to-the-company children's reps, but she may move on to the other Superfamily bases in the Mediterranean and the Canary Islands. "Parental choice" is crucial in the travel business. The Superfamily questionnaires that parents fill in on their homebound flights must return an 85 per cent or above rating of "excellent" for the children's service. A "unit" (hotel or apartment complex) that falls below 85 is expected to improve its score within a month.
When I catch up with Jo on Ibiza, she is putting in extra time at one Activ club with a score in the high 70s, where staff are also busy dealing with a complaint from a parent who has found her three-year-old playing unsupervised near the pool's deep end. At a neighbouring resort in a beautiful but isolated spot, three children's reps have threatened to pull out on the same day. Personnel and competence issues are not Jo's direct responsibility, but she is concerned with making sure that the content is 85-plus standard and the reps have what they need to deliver it: that ants are removed from the store cupboard, that there are proper noticeboards, room for displays and enough chairs for the children. Her concept of the "action plan" is another import from teaching - she gives each club an action plan every month, which usually emphasises preparation, organisation and record-keeping ("I make them fill in planning sheets for everything. If they don't like it, that's OK - I've got the skin of a rhinoceros. It helps that I'm the queen of filing").
She is also the queen of displays. At another club on the island which she considers to be a model, paper palm trees are flourishing in two floor-to-ceiling landscapes. "I want all children to see their artwork on the wall right away, even if they're going home the next day," she says. Both displays are inspired by picture books: A Friend for Little Bear by Harry Horse and One Green Island by Charlotte Hart. The publisher, Walker Books, has set up a book corner and library in each Activ club, and several sessions a week are book-related. Michael Rosen's We're Going on a Bear Hunt, already familiar to some children from school, gets suitably enthusiastic readings. Colin McNaughton's Captain Abdul's Pirate School is the springboard for an afternoon of controlled anarchy in another resort when a rep called Martin dresses up as a pirate, kidnaps his forebearing colleague Emma and ties her to a real palm tree. The six to eight-year-olds in the "Crew" party (the younger ones are called "Bunch", the nine to 12-year-olds are called "Posse") trail Martin through the pool and lounge area, terrorising their comatose parents ("We are in the Activ club," they sing, "Mum and Dad are in the pub").
Vivian French, one of the Walker authors who visit the clubs (she is just back from Majorca and will shortly join Jo on Ibiza), says the captive Activ audience responds well to the storytelling and book-making sessions, which are just reminiscent enough of the classroom, but not too much. "We had 40 children turn up to a session, and they all brought their parents back in the evening. These are children who might not have met a real live author at school or been to a book festival - they were so excited. Once they were under no pressure to write, they loved helping to make up a story. Their creativity took off in the more relaxed atmosphere and their parents loved seeing it."
Jo wants to build up the libraries to attract more readers in the Posse age group, and is using her key stage 2 experience to develop a more challenging programme for the older participants. This month there are trials for "Mission Improbable", a circuit of activities she helped to devise which introduces teamwork and problem-solving. "You need something stimulating up your sleeve for this age group, for when they get bored with playing sport and hanging out by the pool."
She'll spend the winter back at headquarters, fine-tuning next year's programme. So far, her Balearic beat compares well with teaching; her salary is lower but she gets free accommodation, food and travel. "I do miss having teacher colleagues and I miss the immediate relationships with children - when things turn out well, the credit and the thank-you notes quite rightly go to the reps."
Her only free time in the UK so far this season has been spent with her old class from John Harrow on an activity holiday at Graffham Water. "I let Miss Frusher out of the box I've been keeping her in, and I know she's always there if I want her. It reminded me how much I like being with children when they're having fun, and how little of that now happens in schools. Here, I see children having fun all the time."