Blue-sky thinking

15th July 2005 at 01:00
Teachers' 'long' holidays are all very well, but a little term-time flexibility would be nice, says John Cattermole

A parent and friend of mine recently had a dilemma - whether or not to take his daughter out of school for a week in term time to go to Spain. As a teacher who would love to have such freedom, I advised him to do so, and asked him why the dilemma? "Because," he answered, "it sets a precedent.

She's only in reception, and I don't want her to think that school and learning are not important."

Noble sentiments indeed. He still went on holiday, though, as do thousands of families at this time of year - people whose nine-to-five jobs allow them to take their holidays whenever they like. Across the country, there are children marked with an "H" in the register, whose parents probably didn't agonise over whether to take them out or not, but who rather, for economic reasons, have decided to get abroad when they can afford to. This is a luxury that teachers and their family can never begin to contemplate.

"At least you have the luxury of 13 weeks' holiday a year," non-teaching friends will say. But those at the chalkface know different; with preparation and planning that inevitably fill half term and most of Easter and Christmas, the only true holidays are in the summer.

In fact, given the week or so that is spent preparing for September, there remain probably only five weeks of switch-off and relaxation, which is roughly equivalent to the time off given other professions, who of course have no weekend or evening work.

However, the length of holidays is not my argument, but rather their inflexibility. There is no such choice or dilemma for teachers with children, as we can only take our holidays when the school calendar allows, and consequently at the time when Ryanair, Thomas Cook et al double or treble their prices. I wonder how many teachers there are, who, while being immensely grateful for the long August break, are frustrated and land-locked in Ol' Blighty and cannot afford to get abroad? And when you return to school in September, there are always one or two empty chairs for those children whose parents are enjoying the flexibility and cheaper flights.

Even within the UK we are restricted. Before I began teaching, I twice enjoyed the amazing experience of the Glastonbury Festival; and yet, while I remain a teacher, I will have to cross that date off my calendar. With the exception of one Saturday night, I will not be able to go, and as anyone who's been will tell you, you need at least four days to get the full experience, with half a day's travel there and back. Try asking your headteacher for time off for that - yet that is exactly what other members of the UK workforce can work into their annual leave, if they wish.

Surely, with modern working practices, an element of flexibility could be incorporated into teachers' holidays? I think a "flexible week" should be our entitlement, free for us to take as we like. If that time could be negotiated in advance, either as a whole week for a trip abroad, or as two long weekends for example, and timetabled in to suit all parties, then couldn't a teacher be asked to make up that time during the summer closure?

I would be happy giving up some time in August when it is too expensive to get away, and offer to do anything - undertaking statistical research for a particular area of learning, rewriting school policies, painting walls - anything for a flexible week which I can take at a more appropriate time of the year. Would this not attract more would-be graduates to the profession? Those newly-qualified teachers who are at present unable to go to Glastonbury might actually get the chance to hit the road, as would those who want to venture further afield and broaden their horizons and ultimately become better teachers. Someone once told me that such a system exists for teachers in either Canada or Australia - should we not be entitled to it too? In the 21st century, teachers should have the right to choose a small element of their holiday time.

And then we could all go on a summer holiday.

John Cattermole is a primary teacher in Cambridgeshire.

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