May used to be an island of calm for catching up…

11th May 2018 at 00:00
…but the study-leave window is now a busy and anxious time. So what’s the solution?

Study leave is here again. The promised land. For five weeks, we teachers have clear classrooms, 80 per cent non-contact time and a surfeit of opportunities to do all the things we’ve been putting off. It’s a chance to tidy drawers; clear the pile of paper on the desk; and tackle all the things senior management have been giving us since January. Some will say we can relax in the absence of pupils, whom we know will of course be at home revising intently.

The reality may be somewhat different. Five weeks is a remarkably short time in education. There are activities days to organise, the new timetable to prepare, nervous pupils demanding attention and a new S1 cohort heading our way for transition work. There is also the constant worry about what the exams are going to be like and whether we have prepared pupils well enough. Study leave is definitely not the quiet time we always think it is going to be.

Down in England, there has been recognition of the inadequacies in the system and, with overregulation inherent in much of its education system, study leave has been abolished in a large number of schools. In many cases, neither pupils nor parents are happy about this. Comments on online forum The Student Room show a varied picture, with one pupil saying study leave has been abandoned because of government policy, while another blames previous year groups with the unsubstantiated claim that “my school doesn’t give those privileges anymore because the year before us didn’t study and instead used that time to mess about, so I’m screwed, too”.

Meanwhile, over on Mumsnet, study leave is also a hot topic. Some parents lament that their children have to travel for hours to and from school when this time would be better spent revising at home. A few mention schools in which there is a structured approach to revision and teachers are required to provide lesson time for pupils to practise exam technique. But in other cases, pupils are sent to school for free-for-all sessions in unsupervised spaces, and can spend the time either revising or chatting and working hard on keeping their online profiles up to date.

As with pretty much everything else in education, there is evidence that in some cases study leave works, but that in others it doesn’t. According to research organisation One Education, for study leave to be successful, “pupils need to be incredibly self-motivated or have a strong familial support network in place to encourage effective study. Many school leaders report that even very well-motivated pupils tend to fall prey to distraction, with study leave in the traditional sense only really benefiting gifted and talented pupils.”

Lack of facilities

Statistics show that pupils who have extended periods of study leave do not perform as well as those who are kept in more formal schooling. There are concerns about the disproportionate effects on pupils from less-advantaged backgrounds, where parents may not be able to support study at home and study leave may not be helpful at all. I know in our school that there are pressures on children at home to care for younger siblings or carry out household duties. Additionally, many lack the facilities to engage in meaningful revision – a quiet space, internet access, or even in some cases a table on which to lay out books and paper.

I also know that, from the beginning of May, many National 5 and Higher pupils are still talking to their teachers about what more they need to do to make things work in the weeks ahead. Others just look for a safe and comfortable place to study and find moral support. This has a notable and increasing effect on already overworked staff. Over the years, I have seen more and more pupils coming back into school during study leave, as the pressures of the exam system increase and the work required to ensure success continues to grow.

Teachers who are incapable of saying “no” when asked for help bear the brunt of the increasing workload and insecurity of pupils; they have to sacrifice what would have been their own catch-up time. As senior managers, we should recognise that the characteristics of study leave are changing, and ensure that we do not make unrealistic demands on our staff during this period.

We all also need to give a bit more thought to how we view pupils during this time off school. There are obviously many who need the increased support that only being in school can offer, and there are those who face demands at home that mean they cannot make the most of the opportunity.

We must take account of those National 4 pupils who, under the old days of Foundation and General Standard Grades, would at least have some end point in an exam to take. Now, there is perhaps the opportunity for some to come into school to finish off projects (meaning further work for teachers, of course). But for many, study leave means more time out of education and falling further behind their peers. For a few, we can arrange work experience, but with the large number of pupils in this category, this is proving impossible on a large scale.

There are no answers here as to what could be done to make study leave better. As things stand, we are failing all those we should be looking after – our staff, who need a break before the new session begins rather than the added pressure associated with high-stakes exams; and our pupils, who either have to cope with the demands placed upon them, or who may be ignored because they do not fit in with the exam system.

Every year, however, I shall keep making the same promise to myself to look at how things could be done differently – and I’ll get around to it in May, when I supposedly have nothing else to do…

John Rutter is head of Inverness High School

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