How five eights could fortify the holidays

1st August 2003 at 01:00
Long, hot, summer breaks are all very well, but they are not necessarily the best for teaching purposes, says Ewan Aitken

THE long summer holiday is one of my most pleasurable memories of school.

Before anyone reads that as an insult to those who had the challenge of teaching me, let me qualify that. What I remember is simply the great joy of seven uninterrupted weeks stretching before me, freedom expressed as time to do as I wished, which was mostly play football with my pals.

There was a field behind my house. It was actually a steep slope, but it became our field of dreams. Games would last whole days, the winners being first to 21. Some of those goals were among the finest ever scored in Scottish football history.

We played cricket, too, and even organised our own Olympics. When our desire for sporting glory was sated, we would cycle to Burntisland just because it was there.

In the summer, time allowed friendships to deepen through shared experiences. We learned about ourselves, about what and perhaps who mattered to us. The summer holidays were a trial run for the big wide world we knew lay before us. We felt that our destiny, at least for the foreseeable future, was in our hands.

Looking back, I realise that the long break had a deeper significance. The summer holidays were, in a sense, a rite of passage that gave otherwise chronological movements a deeper meaning. You did more than leave a first-year and return a second-year. You were older but, more importantly, you had a summer of freedom and experience under your belt that authenticated a new status and importance.

The summer gave credence to the perception that moving between years was some kind of promotion, punctuating progression through the hierarchy of the school like a gateway defining an unspoken order of importance and authority.

Until recently, I would have accepted without question that this is a very personal memory, a distinctly Presbyterian perception of the world having an innate order authenticated by ritual. But during the national debate about education, I found that when the long holiday was raised, many people said words to the effect that "the long summer was part of growing up", and that changing it would mean children "losing something special in their childhood".

Despite these memories, the long summer does have downsides. Headteachers, particularly but not exclusively in special schools, tell me that in many ways, while young people may be gaining other experiences during the long holiday, they will have regressed by the time they return in terms of their ability to engage with learning and teaching.

Uneven lengths of terms that are not even consistent year-on-year mean that in some years exams are squeezed into terms that can be four weeks less than other years, leaving judging the balance of time for revision over teaching difficult to plan, so creating unnecessary pressures.

Many teachers tell me that the summer term can be so long and so exhausting that the first week of the holiday is spent simply recovering. Working parents, as so many have to be, tell me that even with family holidays, finding childcare for these weeks is difficult. Resourcing summer activity programmes for seven weeks is a huge challenge.

So I'd like to explore the option of constructing our school year differently, looking at five eight-week terms with two-week breaks in between and four weeks in the summer. This is not a new idea, but I do not think it has been tried in Scotland. It would give a constancy and rhythm to the whole school year rather than the summer break dominating.

It would allow planning to be more systematic and in particular end the problem of pressure and exhaustion from the long summer term. And with individual learning plans and the flexible curriculum, there needs to be a blurring of apparent hierarchies caused by the chronological stepping- stones.

It's not perfect. Endings and beginnings always have their difficulties and this has more. Eight weeks isn't long for exams, and the shape of some curriculum delivery might need changing. And maybe children do need that temporary experience of freedom. I do think this plan has merit, however, and I'd like to discuss it with all those affected by our term structure.

More importantly, however, I would like that debate to focus as much on the emotional effect on all those involved as on the logistics. Then we would be making a decision based on what is really important in the communities that create the educational experience.

Ewan Aitken is executive member for education on Edinburgh City Council.

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