Cry freedom: we need the holidays to restore balance

18th July 2008 at 01:00
Hoorah for the holidays

Hoorah for the holidays. In Ireland, where the school summer break is even longer than ours, they have a saying: "There are three good things about being a teacher - June, July and August." But even the six-week British break shines like a high, flowery Alpine meadow after the steep and rocky climb of September to July.

It shines for teachers, anyway, and most of the pupils. Not for parents, who often face it with horror, what with work pressures and the shortage and cost of safe amusements. Sandi Toksvig spoke for many on BBC Radio 4's The News Quiz when she mused: "Forty-two days' detention without charge? Hmm, that's the summer holidays sorted. Grass them up to the police on day one."

Nor does the summer break shine for some stern educators - those who say that in the la-la land of summer idleness children slip back and forget what they have learnt. The argument is that they should have two-week breaks throughout the year, and never taste the thrill of that last day of summer term, the happy, hysterical moment of liberation. The first time I heard the "Prisoners' Chorus" in Beethoven's Fidelio ("O welche lust in freier luft zu leben!"), I was 12 and I associated it immediately with that holiday feeling. O welche lust!

The summer-holiday abolitionists have plenty of reasons on their side, as bores so often do. Their arguments resonate strongly in an era when two full-time jobs are necessary to pay many mortgages, and when too few neighbourhoods offer safe terrain for the roaming, inventive freedom which earlier generations knew.

For some children school is the only structure, sense and civilisation in their lives. But that is another problem entirely, and needs another solution.

Mostly, the family challenges are about care for the younger children and alleviating boredom for the older ones. As usual, the affluent classes find it easiest to meet them. More summer camps and playschemes, youth clubs and playing fields are sorely needed, and few are on the horizon.

Yet still something within me says that the long summer holiday is too important to discard. I tend to go with the poet Martial, who insisted that children didn't need to be taught in summer.

The argument about them "forgetting" their lessons over six weeks has a suspicious ring to it. For one thing, some of the most successful schools are independents, which have far longer holidays than the maintained sector.

More importantly, you only forget information which you haven't taken in properly anyway. You forget formulaic teaching-to-the-test, pat answers to please examiners, and set scenes ripped senselessly out of the play or novel. If children so rapidly discard knowledge, they are not processing it properly in the first place.

You don't forget what you have learnt to care about. Real knowledge is carried within you, so that the maths you did in school comes in handy in summer jobs restocking the ice-cream kiosk, and the geography makes you more aware of your holiday location and your neighbourhood and, indeed, the changing weather. A good English teacher should make you want to read more; media studies enable you to watch television more critically; and PE improves kickabouts or leapfrog in the park.

Summer could be - and quite often is - a time when the proper lessons of schooldays sink in, imperceptibly, without pressure of tests and routines.

And summer, for teachers and children alike in these days of prescriptive schooling, is a time to restore balance and to be fully human, engaged with the world as it is, not as it is represented in the classroom. The real world is not made of paper and lists and worksheets and prissy tests. It is irregular, confusing, unpredictable, serendipitous. We all need to be reminded of that. Summer for children - and teachers - is a small taste of life outside the educational box. So, yes, hurrah for the holidays!

Libby Purves, Author and presenter of `The Learning Curve' on BBC Radio 4.

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