17th November 2000 at 00:00
It wasn't really necessary to phone the boss during half-term, but I was concerned. She hadn't been her usual self. She was even off sick one day. Unheard of.

But her response, when I did phone, was equally surprising. "Go away!" she said.

On the first morning back, she apologised. She had appreciated that someone cared enough to check that all was well. At that point, the phone rang and we didn't get back to the conversation until some time after the kids had gone home. She shrugged and said that that sort of interruption - and the chaos of the day that followed it - were the main reasons why she had not been her usual self. They were also the reasons why she valued her privacy during the holidays.

She enjoyed being on her own. Being able to wear jeans and a sweater instead of a suit. The silence. The phone not encroaching on whatever she was doing. Being able to finish things without some crisis intervening.

My wife shares these sentiments. She is head of a primary school. Her day involves wall-to-wall problem kids, parents phoning from dawn to way beyond the time that schools allegedly close, staff seeking help, and endless emails and missives from the local authority.

At the end of term, my wife demands that we escape. Once upon a time, it was European camping with the children. Now that they have left, we have a better solution. We bought a converted barn in south-west France a couple of years ago. Nothing grand. No swimming pool. But it does have lectricity and plumbing that works. More importantly, it is too far to dash back if something goes wrong at her school (but not so far that she couldn't for a major disaster) and staff are disinclined to phone abroad.

Our barn is in a hamlet of about 10 houses. It overlooks rolling countryside planted with perfect rows of vines. It is warm throughout the year. It is, in our opinion, the perfect antidote to the stress of running a school.

But there are, as with any cure, some side-effects.

People are jealous of our barn. They think we must be affluent ("Well, you have to be to own two homes"). We don't get invited to social events any more ("Oh, we assumed you'd be in France!"). And we have to book ferry crossings for Easter, Whitsun and the summer within days of the start of the school year.

But alongside the jibes are the surreptitious enquiries about whether we let it.

As a cure to stress, it is an obvious solution. Judging by the number of cars on the ferry laden with tools and furniture, an increasing number of people are doing it. Once upon a time, the escape route took people to Wales or Cornwall. Now it is to the Channel Tunnel or Portsmouth.

With the strength of the pound and so many teachers looking for something useful to do with their pound;2,000 threshold payments, I foresee a rush for the immobiliers up and down rural France. I just hope the buying won't add to the stress.

The writer works with excluded pupils in East Anglia

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