Don't be mug enough to play Scrooge

23rd December 2005 at 00:00
We are at the end of the Christmas term. Across the land, teachers are collapsing in well-deserved exhaustion knowing that their efforts have enabled our youth to participate fully in this great festival of winter excess. Except it's not that simple.

The reality is that a school Christmas brings many dangers. Consider the asthma attacks and bouts of lameness suffered by teachers whose annual exercise is enthusiastic participation in endless practices of the "Dashing White Sergeant". Or the nativity play's producer reduced to tears of frustration at Joseph's inability to produce the same lines twice running.

"Never again," she vows.

Some headteachers manage to fall into the Christmas trap all by themselves when they are splashed across the media, labelled as "Scrooge", "Killjoy", or worse. Their crime? They have shown good sense and attempted to confine festive disruption to December only, thereby banning an earlier start.

Nothing wrong with that. We all do it to preserve school sanity.

The problem arises when the decision is communicated to all. An indulgent parent's nose is put out. Her little Barry has been celebrating since October because "it's the only pleasure he gets". So she rings a newspaper, says that she is "incensed" and the bandwagon starts rolling. It's fine to discuss Christmas restrictions with staff. As far as anyone else is concerned, silence is golden.

Eventually, the term ends with the reward for a good school Christmas . . .

guilt. As teachers brush off the glitter, they realise that school events have set back their family preparations. And the shops are running out of everything they want.

The all-consuming nature of a school Christmas diverts attention from the wider world also. (Is this why the Scottish Executive releases important statistics in late November and December?) So we shouldn't miss the news about Glasgow's continuing efforts to raise attainment in the city's schools. A panel of the great and good has been summoned but, more important, the council wants to listen to teachers' views and suggestions.

George Gardner, depute director of education, states: "We need teachers on our side . . . It is the class teacher who really holds the key to successful learning."

How refreshing. The importance of the class teacher is too often ignored in our climate of sham consultation and "top-down" school development.

Immersion in Christmas may also mean missing the next surprise in the everlasting debate on reading. No, it's not Ruth Kelly telling English schools that "synthetic" phonics is the way forward. The "synthetic" versus "analytic" phonics stuff leaves me so cold that my brain goes into hibernation at any mention of it.

But my brain did stutter into life when a newspaper published what looked like a page from our staff handbook. In fact, it was a report about clever researchers at Warwick University. They have discovered the 100 most frequently used words and have pronounced this list as important for teaching children to read. Dej... vu again. The list has been around for at least 40 years. Any primary school will produce a copy and express astonishment that anyone should consider it revolutionary, but it's one more example of long-standing primary practices suddenly being "discovered"

by others.

Above all, I would hate Christmas to divert attention from one of the most burning current questions in Scottish education. What are South Ayrshire, Orkney and Perth and Kinross up to? Their primary school results were omitted from the list squeezed out of the Executive last month. The only explanation was "statistics unavailable".

Why? Did someone press the wrong button and lose them? Are they the "bad boys" who don't do as they're told? Did their mums write a note? Are they hoping Christmas will provide a smokescreen? I think we should be told.

Brian Toner is headteacher of St John's primary in Perth.

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