Recovery time or a waste of space?

28th August 1998 at 01:00
Should teachers' holidays be cut to six or eight weeks a year to help spread their workload and maximise use of school premises? Margaret Hodge, the new employment minister, thinks so. So do the employers.In the autumn the Government will publish its plans to re-draw teachers' contracts. Education Secretary David Blunkett says he wants to modernise contracts in return for increased school funding. In the last of The TES summer debates, journalist Stephen Pollard puts the case for scrapping the current holiday entitlement. Headteacher Jane Wainwright says the demand for change should be resisted.

Nice work if you can get it! Thirteen weeks holiday a year. I'm a journalist with a ludicrously generous holiday allowance and even I'm jealous. Stop work in July, and then nothing until September. Who couldn't do with six weeks off over the summer? No wonder the teaching unions say not on your nellie. Talk about cushy number.

Well, perhaps. That of course is part of the problem. From the outside it does look as if teachers have it easy. Forget the over-long days (and nights). Forget the weekends, the marking, the preparation and the extra curricular support. Ignore the stress. To an outsider the word teacher means only extra long holidays.

As the Irishman said when asked how to get to Donegal: you shouldn't start from here. No one can seriously argue that if we were negotiating teachers' contracts and, of course, arranging school terms for the first time, we would decide that the most sensible and productive use of teachers' time is to force them to work themselves into the ground for three terms a year and then give them nothing to do for the rest of the year.

That is why those schools that aren't "starting from here" have indeed chosen different arrangements. In the new education action zones, schools will be free both to stay open longer and to hire teachers on completely different contracts.

Four and five-term years will be the norm. Some schools will open for three sessions a day morning, afternoon and evening with pupils choosing which two to attend. Some will open at weekends. Most city technology colleges have already adopted a more flexible arrangement, some with five-term years.

The current arrangements are, like so much in Britain, an historical overhang perfectly sensible in their day, but defying common sense in the modern world. As Margaret Hodge one of the most creative education thinkers when chairman of the education select committee and now, encouragingly, part of David Blunkett's team, asked: "Is there a continuing justification for a long summer holiday which was based on allowing children to work in the harvest?" Of course not. Indeed, these long holidays are not just wasteful they are educationally damaging. The evidence shows that there is a significant drop in standards during the long summer holiday; many pupils simply forget what they have just been taught, and are then forced to spend much of the Christmas term catching up.

This summer more than 560 schools are running literacy summer schools to boost reading levels for kids that are already behind. In a sensible world, summer schools would be not the exception but the rule.

Still more bizarre is the waste of precious physical resources entailed in the way we use schools today. The more forward-looking football clubs have long recognised the lunacy of using their facilities just one afternoon a week. No company would let its buildings stand empty for three months a year. But although some schools have dipped their toes in the water, they are constrained by teachers' availability.

The most sensible proposal to rejig teachers' working conditions was made in The TES in April by Anita Higham, principal of Banbury School: "Teachers (should) be at their place of work for 225 days each year I They should have a right to 27 days plus eight public holidays (ie seven weeks) of annual leave taken in agreed blocks of time dispersed between pupil contact terms and 35 professional days, when the work done is not directly with children, each year". Such an arrangement, which should be flexible to match local needs, would provide the necessary teaching cover.

What a surprise, then, to discover that that force for good Nigel de Gruchy, and his enlightened colleague, Doug McAvoy of the National Union of Teachers, oppose any change. To Mr de Gruchy of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, anyone suggesting a reduction in teachers' holiday is "living in cloud cuckoo land" if they think that teachers will countenance any change without at least a 50 per cent pay rise.

It's not often that I agree with anything said by Graham Lane, chairman of the Local Government Association's education committee. But for once he is on the side of common sense, and has recognised that "the year does need restructuring", with the introduction of five-term years.

There are all sorts of intriguing and proven ways of lifting standards available to us. But although the Government has been commendably forceful in prising open some tightly closed minds, until teachers' contracts start to reflect the real world we are all banging our heads against a brick wall.

Stephen Pollard is a columnist for The Express and co-author of A Class Act: the myth of Britain's classless society. He wrote the book with Andrew Adonis, now Tony Blair's education adviser.

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