Gerald Haigh on the advantages and otherwise of long holidays
At the end of the summer term the staff of the school where I am a governor relax together in the quad after the children have gone home. Sometimes there is a barbecue - always there is much recycling of old jokes and stories from the front line. At some point, someone calls to the deputy head: "Time for your virgin snow speech, Dave."
Long ago, you see, Dave stood up at one of these occasions and made a speech which included the sentence: "And now the holiday stretches before us like virgin snow." Everyone enjoyed the phrase so much that he now has to make the same speech every year. It is certainly true that in mid-July, September seems a long way away. July is high summer, with family holidays still to come. September, though, is almost autumn. It will soon be time to think about the Christmas play.
Parents are not great fans of long holidays. By mid-August they are commiserating with one another in the street, and you don't have to be in a supermarket long before you hear someone shout: "I'll be glad when you're back at school."
Teachers, however, do appreciate the long break - so much so that last year in Newham some NASUWT members took industrial action by refusing to attend a teacher training day at the end of August. They said they had a "traditional and psychological" right to be on holiday at that time. (Welcome news, presumably, to all the teachers in Scotland, and in some English authorities, who have been returning in August for years. As non-Londoners, though, they don't count.) In fact, few teachers spend six weeks on the beach or even in the garden. That is one of the things that has changed over the years. In the 1960s and 1970s, schools were locked up for much of the holiday, reopening for cleaning in the last week or two. Our school is, however, now open all the time. There is a soccer school in the first week and a borough play scheme throughout August. Teachers take advantage of this ease of access and at any time there will be some cars in the car park. For them, the holida has become a time for catching up on all the time- consuming planning and preparation jobs that are pushed out of the frenetic school day.
One by-product of all this activity, incidentally, is that it is now much more difficult for the caretaking and cleaning staff to fit in the big jobs, such as stripping back and resealing the floors. Our cleaners, to their credit, still manage to do it - devoted as they are to the school - and the head rewards them by taking them out for a meal in September.
Arguably, however, all of this - teachers having a psychological rest or doing preparation; parents going frantic; play-schemes getting in the way of the cleaning - is irrelevant. What matters is whether a six-week break in any way affects the welfare and education of the children, and on this the jury is still out. So although the instinctive feeling is that children forget stuff during the long holiday, and then have to learn it again, the evidence is actually inconclusive. Some countries have much longer summer breaks than we do, and there are other, probably more important variables - the change of teacher or school; the way the end and beginning of terms are managed.
That is why the lobby working toward a five-term year sees the length of the summer holiday as only part of the problem. Chris McDonnell, head of Fulfen primary in Staffordshire, who is a strong advocate of five terms, sees the whole thing in much broader terms.
"This year," he says, "we came back from Easter after the May Day bank holiday. Then after three-and-a-half-weeks it was half-term. How can you stabilise your planning with a pattern like that? In my view, if we had five units of eight weeks, the pressure on both staff and children would actually be lessened."
His feeling is, however, that any radical change to the pattern would have to be approached at national level.
The discussion, he says, is long overdue: "My point is not that it ought to be introduced, but that it ought to be seriously debated."
Gerald Haigh is an education journalist and former headteacher