Easter used to be a time to rest between winter and the exams season. Not any more. Dorothy Lepkowska reports
There was a time when Easter brought a welcome break from the long, cold winter term.
But not any longer, it seems. While many pupils will still be jetting off abroad with their parents, tens of thousands of pupils and their teachers will be back in the classroom. Instead of enjoying the first days of spring relaxing, they will be revising for exams or taking part in booster classes in preparation for tests.
At the same time, politically-active teachers will be debating the latest issues in conference halls as three of the four classroom unions hold their annual conferences over Easter, as do some subject organisations, including the Geographical Association and the Association for Language Learning.
Schools in virtually every local authority in the country are organising events aimed at improving their performances in league tables, or just giving children something to do.
The National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth has organised more than 20 activities for hundreds of the most able children. These range from masterclasses on Chaucer to supplementary key stage 3 maths sessions.
Among those taking part were a group of 11 to 13-year-olds who went on a day-long course at Dudley zoo, in the West Midlands, to look at insects, snakes and lemurs as part of a study of Madagascar, its habitat and animals.
A spokeswoman for the academy said: "This is learning for fun and it gives these children a chance to do things they would not have a chance to experience in school. There is also a social aspect in bringing together a large group of children with similar abilities, rather than them just being part of a small group in their school."
But Rajeeb Day, founder and chairman of the English Secondary Students Association, said pupils needed a break from schoolwork.
"For many students, Easter is the last time they can have some fun before they have to start serious revision for GCSEs and A-levels," he said.
"Holiday-time classes are fine as long as pupils are not compelled to take part in them, and it is a decision they make for themselves."
Dr Richard Woolfson, a child psychologist, agrees. "A work-life balance is as important for children as it is for adults," he said. "If children are forced kicking and screaming to a holiday class, they won't co-operate.
However, if the activity is planned with them, it can be vital in raising confidence and knowledge in the build-up to examinations."
In Durham county, 300 teenagers volunteered for a three-day intensive course called the High 5s Challenge at Durham university's Van Mildert college.
The 16-year-olds, all borderline GCSE students, took part in day-time revision in English, maths, science, geography and foreign languages, and in supervised private study sessions in the evenings.
Chris Carling, from Durham county council's study support unit, said the courses offered specialised help to push them from grade D to C or higher, and that experience had shown that the courses work.
"It's not all hard work," he said. "There's plenty of time each evening for fun and socialising. We've found in the past that well over 95 per cent of those attending go on to further education college or sixth-form, and about 70 per cent get a grade C or better in the subjects they study."
In Oldham, 270 pupils were taking part in activities under the Aim Higher and gifted and talented programmes. These include promoting vocational courses in FE to teenagers who are about to take their GCSEs, to music workshops for KS3 pupils and four-day sports academies for pupils in Years 7 and 8.
Eight girls from Ringwood school, in Hampshire, spent last week on the water trying to gain qualifications in canal boat management and food hygiene as part of an Easter adventure activity. The 13 to 15-year-olds travelled from Braunstone, in Northamptonshire, to Warwick.
David Lambert, chief executive of the Geographical Association, which is expecting 650 teachers to attend its conference next week, said Easter was the last chance to stage activities before the climax of the academic year, the examination season.
He said: "While some heads regard these conferences as important and part of a teacher's professional development, others don't value them at all. So we have to try to please everyone, and this time of year has become traditional and seems to suit people best."
John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: "It never used to be like this, and it is indicative of the times.
"There's nothing wrong with young people having intellectual pursuits, and the gifted and talented programme is a separate issue in that respect. But booster and revision classes during holiday time just show how much pressure schools are under to make sure their pupils succeed."