So how long should the school year be?

6th August 2004 at 01:00
Endless summer for teachers it's not, but the pattern of holidays has to change, says Michael Russell

He wanted big pay and long holidays" was the verdict of a train driver in Kilmarnock on my former school rector, a remark I have remembered for almost 40 years. I heard it on the footplate of one of the last steam engines I ever got close to. The man who said it had been at school in Maybole with the late Bob Kennedy, the begowned and grim - if highly respected - presence which ran Troon's Marr College in those days.

I know that most teachers today are not in it for the big pay and the long holidays. The very suggestion would have all my teacher friends and relatives reaching for a range of choice vocabulary. On pay, it is quite clear that despite the media spin about McCrone, teachers are now paid a salary which at least starts to equate to the length of their working week, in class and out of it, and the burden of their responsibilities.

Alas teachers and their representatives have failed to counter-spin the details of McCrone and the fact that the so-called new obligations were being usually met in more than full before anyone had ever heard of a so called "new deal for the 21st century".

Holidays, however, are a trickier subject. No matter the need for teachers to unwind and to recharge flattened batteries (flattened more often than not by the sheer grind of getting to the end of June), many members of the public do not understand why any professional should have six straight weeks in the summer away from the pressures of work, still less a fortnight at Christmas and Easter and at least a week in October.

That range of choice vocabulary may already be rising to your mouth, but bear with me. I accept that the disadvantage of always having to book your break just at the time when the prices rise is not fair.

Compensation is due, as it is for the extra hours that are always spent above and beyond. In addition most - but not all - teachers will be in school or working on school-related matters at some stage during any holiday. That is the nature of the job, and the nature of the majority of those who do it.

The usual defence to any criticism of the present pattern of the school year is to call on tradition. But to defend something merely by citing the way it has always been is never enough, particularly if times have changed.

Very few young people require a long summer break, or a week in the autumn, because of the demands made on them by the seasonal pattern of agriculture.

In 21st century Scotland, "tattie holidays" are more about eating crisps than howking potatoes.

Despite official pressure, more and more young people are being taken out of school at other times of year as a result of radically changed holiday choices and their parents' employment. That needs to be borne in mind as does the prevalence of one-parent families and shift work, all of which can make a six-week break in the summer a burden on everyone.

The debate about organising the school year also takes in school hours.

There is growing evidence that young people may learn better with a different pattern of school day. It is also obvious that school transport might be easier to arrange if school hours were more flexible. Despite the deep flaws in the "vision paper" produced a couple of years ago by Archie Morton, then director of education in Argyll and Bute, there was thinking behind it that needs to be taken on board. Those issues include the use of buildings and resources.

Some countries, it has to be admitted, still stick to an arrangement of terms broadly similar to ours. In Ireland and in parts of the Unites States, the summer holiday is even longer - although in those places summer schools blur the issue, as they are beginning to here.

It could be that, while this favours teachers, it favours students more because the pattern allows for absorption of information in a way that does not over-pressure the ability to learn and adapt. All work and no play does make Jack, Jamal, Jill and Jessie dull boys and girls.

Yet those places that don't do as we do seem to have no problems in achieving attainment levels at least as high as ours. What is more, they are able to vary the curriculum and the pattern of learning in interesting ways. We should at least be willing to look at those examples and see if we can take the best from them.

Perhaps it would be good to have a progressive approach throughout the school - with the youngest pupils having the most time to chill out, and the older ones spending more time learning: through three semesters or through different hours. Perhaps even the other way round!

It would certainly be complex to arrange. But complex things are always difficult to arrange, yet they can prove to be worth while. Perhaps we should lengthen the winter break and shorten the summer one. Perhaps - the biggest heresy of all - teachers could be allowed to stagger their holidays as opposed to stagger before they get them. That would require more teachers, but that is something I have argued in favour of for a long time.

Unless teachers bite the bullet on this, and begin to talk about different possibilities, then - as usual - they will be left reacting to management proposals and feeling as if they are being dragooned into change. That always leaves the impression - and nearly always wrongly - that it is indeed the big pay and the long holidays that motivates them. It is time for some counter-spin. That needs initiative, preparation and some imaginative thinking.

Michael Russell is a writer and broadcaster.

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