Privileged days in the sun

8th August 2008 at 01:00

At the end of the school term you, like me, were probably exhausted. I have never felt so tired, so utterly drained, as I did this year.

My staff were pale and worn out, and so were the pupils. The last weeks of summer term are the busiest of the year, with end-of-term assessments, reports, parental consultations, governors' meetings, sports days, school trips and end-of-term productions. I am knackered.

I have been a headteacher, with a teaching responsibility four days a week, for almost 10 years. Until now it has been manageable. But this year the foundation phase debacle, the new key stage 2 curriculum (has anyone looked at that yet?) and, in my local authority, a job evaluation scheme that took a month of my time to complete and was then scrapped - all these things have made my job almost impossible.

In April I collapsed. An ECG picked up an irregular heartbeat. The doctor said it was most likely to be stress and ordered me to take two weeks off.

My school was last inspected in March 2006. Even then, the inspection team was seriously concerned about my workload. One inspector was adamant: the burden of my responsibility would have to be shared with '"stakeholders" or I would burn out. I laughed. Me? No way.

On the first Friday evening at the end of term I went to bed at 9pm and slept until 10am the following day. I know this end-of-term feeling: it's as if I've been coshed.

So when I read that Sonia Sodha, from the Institute for Public Policy Research, thinks that the way to improve standards in schools is to cut the length of the summer holiday, I knew she could not possibly have any idea what she was talking about.

Ms Sodha went to Oxford University, where the autumn term is barely eight weeks long. Her education didn't seem to suffer too much: she got a first. And I believe Ms Sodha also attended Old Palace School in Croydon, south London, where the summer break began this year on July 8, a week before most state schools.

If we were to compare the results of schools with their holidays, I am sure we would discover that the longer the holiday, the better the results.

I suggest, then, that school holidays are made much longer. Then standards in our schools would fall into line with our public schools and the best universities. But we all know that the schools with the longest holidays are usually public schools, which select the brightest children from the wealthiest families. They have big bank balances, and small classes full of clever children.

Ms Sodha's argument follows others which state that schooling would improve if the school day were longer. Children already have breakfast in school, so why not extend this to an evening meal? Perhaps an on-site dormitory would also raise standards.

Why not go the whole way? As soon as children are born, put them in school and stay there until they are 18. Cut off their arms and legs and put their brains in a vat wired to a central computer. My role would be reduced to choosing the colour scheme for the vats, or occasionally checking to see if little Billy's electrodes haven't slipped off. And the children could be controlled directly from the Assembly government in Cardiff. Wouldn't they love that? Cut out the middle man.

This is the logical conclusion of educational thinking at the moment. Fewer holidays, more time in school, more central control.

But if the children of the affluent get the longest holidays and the best results, isn't affluence the real issue?

If we lived in a society where wealth did not gain an unfair advantage for children, then standards could even out, and the call for shorter holidays would not be so urgent.

But this is such a political hot potato that not even a left-of-centre think-tank such as the Centre for Policy Studies would bother with it. Much easier to grab hold of something that will win the support of most hard-pressed parents. Like school holidays.

A recent report by the Sutton Trust suggests there is less social mobility in Britain than there was 20 years ago. And that's after three terms of a Labour government. If the most able children cannot access the best education, then in the long run the whole country's economy will suffer.

But the Sutton Trust blames this lack of mobility on the education system - specifically the access the wealthy have to schools in which their children can gain better qualifications.

My son attends an excellent high school in mid Wales. I cannot fault the commitment of the head and the staff. But compared with its English peers the school is so badly funded that the range of subjects it can offer is diminishing. For example, it offers a general science GCSE rather than separate qualifications in biology, chemistry and physics.

His cousin, who attends a major public school, will probably gain those three qualifications which my son cannot study. Is he brighter? I don't think so. Does he work harder? I doubt it. The issue is not holidays, but funding. And this can be traced directly to the Assembly government.

So, Ms Sodha, I would suggest that instead of calling for longer school terms, you call for a fairer education system, one that does not offer greater success to those with the most money. But I doubt if you'll do that, because you would be spitting in the face of the system that gave you the advantages from which you now benefit. I don't know if you have children, but I am sure that you if you did, then you would want them to benefit from those advantages too.

If I had the money, I'd want my son to benefit. But I don't have the money because I am a state primary head whose school is dreadfully underfunded and whose job is so overloaded that his heart is squealing.

The last thing we all need is a shorter summer holiday.

Andrew Strong is the author of 'Oswald and the End of the World' and headteacher of Llanbister CP School in Powys.

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