Why should I wish they were here?

11th April 2003 at 01:00
You can't blame parents for taking their children on holiday during school time, says Geoff Brookes

Every year it happens. Parents take their children out of school for holidays. It is not fair. Teachers can't go. But our pupils sail away; sometimes they send a postcard. It can be especially irritating when they disappear to a Costa in September, when you are pushing hard to get things started.

All teachers agree it should be stopped - and now we have the power. We can fine them. And why not? It is frustrating when pupils miss important parts of the syllabus or a vital piece of coursework. It suggests a contempt for what we do - that a cheap holiday is more important than the life-changing experiences we can offer.

But it is not that clear-cut. I am not sure we all want the power to stop opportunities for off-peak breaks. You see, it is a double-edged sword.

Teachers have a responsible part to play, too. And that responsibility is to make the end of the summer term much more effective and meaningful than it sometimes is now.

As a parent, I share the feelings often expressed to me on the phone. Why should a child attend school to do nothing? Often, no real teaching goes on for a large part of July. In fact, it can appear foolish to send a child to school at all. I understand such feelings. I send my son to school to be taught, not to move books around or to watch videos. When this happens, I can only agree that the children would have a more worthwhile experience if they were on holiday. They might even have a chance of learning something.

No, we have to do more. The long run-off into the summer break starts too soon and is impossible to justify to anyone who is not a teacher. It would be unacceptable in any other profession. Just ask health workers if they slow down weeks before they go off on holiday. "Sorry, you can't have your operation, the surgeon is off to France in a fortnight."

The whole thing is an absurdity. The end of the summer term satisfies no one. Everyone gets ratty. Teachers gather in huddles and complain about their timetables. We try to sort ourselves out for the next year, tidying and throwing away. We complain about the sports day, the school trip, work experience. We say the pupils are not interested in doing any work, so we do our best to keep them amused, and cross off the days.

Such indolence becomes so ingrained that the pupils stay away if they think they might have work to do. It is undoubtedly the most unsatisfactory time of all.

Of course, schools try to do something to alleviate this. Some run complex programmes of alternative activities - fishing and sand sculpture, perhaps - to deal with this ennui when attendance statistics plummet. Others move the year on in June, promoting their year groups before September, which may make pupils take this time of year more seriously. Suddenly, the summer is not an end but a beginning.

But teachers are not always keen, even if timetables can be prepared in time. We want to preserve this time of running down. It is what we have always done, so it must be right. Whatever we do, our pupils seem to think work has finished for the year. And we are implicated in this conspiracy.

So is it any surprise parents react the way they do? Why not take the kids off on an early holiday? We offer no worthwhile alternative.

There is more to school than work and results. Schools are communities and should behave as such, knowing when to work and when to relax. But teachers are supposed to be professionals, and should aim to discharge their obligations consistently throughout the year. We must give out the message that children on holiday will always miss something important, no matter when they go.

Geoff Brookes is deputy head of Cefn Hengoed school, Swansea

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