It's the holidays and time for somethingcompletely different. Nicki Household explains the pleasures of a six-week break and meets teachers determined to keep it as a perk.
The long summer break is a time for teachers to rest, recuperate and recharge their batteries. However, there are those outside the profession who think teachers are "lucky", or that they have it easy getting a six-week summer holiday in addition to six or seven more weeks paid leave. "If teachers think they're a special case because the job is stressful, they should try being a policeman," says Margaret Kenworthy, who's married to one.
The issue interests Mrs Kenworthy because her 14-year-old son Bradley attends Landau Forte City Technology College in Derby, which operates a five-term year. Each term is eight weeks long and the teachers, who also work longer hours than in conventional schools, get five separate holidays: four weeks in the summer, two at Christmas, two in March, one in May and one in October. Both one-week holidays are followed by a training week, taken during the students' two-week break.
Even though her nine-year-old daughter attends a conventional primary school with three terms a year, Mrs Kenworthy, a full-time office worker, finds that her son's five-term year makes life easier. "Childcare was costing me a fortune when both children were in mainstream schools, and it's hard to keep them occupied during the long summer holiday."
Landau Forte's principal, Stephen Whitely believes the five-term system benefits teachers as well as students. "The continuity makes it easier to manage the curriculum without any loss of learning, and in my experience both staff and students prefer it," he says. "Also, the traditional six-week summer break has become a nonsense in a world where, in most instances, both parents work. A lot of the opposition is simply resistance to change."
Nevertheless, most teachers are opposed to the idea of a five-semester year or, at best, suspicious of it. "There will be a lot of resentment if the Government starts tampering with school holidays," predicts Angela Plummer, who teaches English and drama in a Devon comprehensive. "Teachers desperately look forward to the long summer break and I think most of us would fight like dogs to keep it."
Apart from going away to the sun for two weeks, Plummer spends most of the holiday roaming Dartmoor on her horse, Perry. "If the holiday were shortened, it wouldn't make sense for someone like me to own a horse. I rent his stabling and grazing, which together with his food costs me quite a bit. Then there are the dark winter evenings, when I drive five miles to feed and groom him after school. But the six-week summer break makes it all worthwhile."
Olive Forsythe of the NUT believes the five-term year would in effect worsen teachers' conditions of service. "If there were any solid argument for change, or any evidence that it would benefit pupils, I'm sure teachers would accept it," she says. "But at the moment it just seems to be someone's bright idea.
"Teachers work a much longer day than outsiders imagine, with meetings, marking, assessments, liaison with outside agents, lesson preparation, fund-raising and extra-curricular activities. The long holiday gives them a chance to wind down and to read, prepare and plan for the autumn. Teachers don't just sit drinking pina colada by a pool for six weeks."
Jean Gemmell, deputy general secretary of the Professional Association of Teachers, agrees. "Teachers are very concerned about change for the sake of change, so I think the subject has to be properly researched."
An independent commission has just been set up by the Local Government Association to consider the viability of a five-term year. It coincides with the news that four counties and 32 London boroughs are contemplating the change. Delegates at this summer's National Association of Headteachers conference also passed a motion calling for a five-term year.
Jean Gemmell remains sceptical: "Teachers have always valued their summer holiday because short breaks simply don't provide the same opportunity to wind down. But I also think children need time to run and jump and get dirty in thesummer, because their lives are so regimented and regulated by the demands of the nationalcurriculum."
For the last 10 of her 16 years as head of Fernwood Comprehensive in Nottinghamshire, Gemmell has devoted her energies in the summer holidays to directing a semi-professional operatic production in Buxton. "Lying on a beach is appropriate for some people at the end of the school year, but I found working in a different discipline incredibly therapeutic."
For teachers of creative subjects, the summer holidays provide a time for their own creativity to flourish. As the mother of two children aged four and six, Jo Nicholls, assistant director of music at Putney High School, considers herself lucky if she can write a few choral arrangements, choose some Christmas carols and prepare her A-level course during the summer holidays. Before having children, she used the long breaks to write full-length musicals (four in all) based on fairy stories for her pupils to perform the following year.
"A shorter holiday wouldn't have allowed me to do that," she says. "But in any case, I think the long summer holiday is a very important time for children to be at home and explore their own interests. And I like the concept of a 'fresh start' in the autumn - new year, new class, new shoes. You'd lose that if there was only a short summer break."
Tess McGivney, who teaches English at a west London comprehensive, has worked through her last two summer breaks teaching English as a foreign language in Brighton. "I needed the extra money for a deposit," she admits, "and it was a nice social group so I enjoyed it. But I was so heavily taxed for doing a second job that it wasn't really worthwhile. So this year, I'm planning a trip to the States instead."
The long summer holiday also provides opportunities for charity work abroad. Kristina Frydberg, a High Wycombe primary teacher, takes part in British Trust for Conservation Volunteers (BTCV) projects overseas. In recent years she has made hay in Hungary, created boardwalks in a Canadian nature reserve and cleared waterways for birdlife in Poland. This year she is putting up signposts in a Romanian national park and will watch the total eclipse from the top of the Bucegi mountains.
The accommodation is basic (you pay for your flight and about pound;385 for two week's board, lodging and trips) but what Frydberg likes about these working holidays is that she doesn't feel - and is not treated - like a tourist.
"The host countries really appreciate what you are doing and go to immense trouble to entertain you. You meet local people, eat typical meals and become part of the local community in a way that would be impossible as a tourist. And I enjoy the fact that the work is physical, so you can switch off your brain and tune in to nature. I thoroughly recommend it to anyone who wants to get right away from the familiar and come home with the glow of knowing they've done something worthwhile."
Would she do it if she only got a four-week summer holiday? "Probably. But I do like the fact that I can do my international project and use the rest of the time for other things. Shorter holidays would certainly rule out BTCV breaks that are longer or further afield."
For more details about the BritishTrust for Conservation Volunteers,call 01491 839766.