School terms are always intense. It’s now routine for teachers to spend 50 hours a week on schoolwork and still feel constantly behind.
So, surely two weeks off in the middle of the autumn term is a welcome respite: an oasis of rest and relaxation.
If only. There’s a world of difference between quality time off in the summer and a holiday at Halloween. One is at the end of the cycle, the other an unnatural break just as students are getting to grips with new courses and settling into a pattern of learning.
Quick read: Unauthorised absences hit record high
The shape of the school year is not a straight horizontal line. It’s an uphill climb, with the steepest gradient at the beginning. So taking a break longer than a week is like stopping on a ledge in the early stages of scaling Mount Everest. There’s still so far to go, and you risk losing momentum.
In the summer, there is the blissful letting go of teaching activity – all the loose ends have been tied up. In the autumn, there are still a lot of threads trailing.
It’s not that I subscribe to the idea of “learning loss” – as if a break in nose-to-grindstone time inevitably undoes all that has gone on since September. But, with exam classes, I would much rather keep going.
Will these students take the opportunity to revisit work? Or will they switch off completely? For a colleague preparing students for the Lamda (London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art) examinations, the two-week half-term break is little short of a disaster. The exams take place so soon after the return to school that she is having to teach during the holiday just to keep her students on track.
There is still a lot of work in progress. Reports are due after half term, and schemes of work for the next half term and the term after that could do with a bit of maintenance – or even a complete rewrite, as the syllabus changes.
It could, of course, be a classic case of Parkinson’s law: work expands to fill the time available – in which case, the one-week half-term break was a kindness, keeping the work to a minimum.
The huge disadvantage of a two-week half-term break at the end of October is undoubtedly the weather. I write this article on a bleak, cloudy day. The clocks have gone back and an easterly wind cuts through you. Who would choose to have a holiday now?
Schools assert that having a two-week break means parents can take their families abroad more cheaply, because the first week of half term becomes a time of lower demand. For parents who have slogged through the summer in tourist areas, this could well be an attraction. But, if schools leaders had hoped unauthorised absences would go down, the official statistics don’t bear this out.
Moreover, as more schools move to a two-week break – with its apparent advantages – the new fortnight holiday will become a time of high demand and high prices once more.
Many families can’t afford a holiday away at any time of the year. And staycations are a much less attractive proposition in the last weeks of October. Where can you take bored, restless children when darkness falls much earlier? Won’t students be glued even more firmly to the internet, their only exercise likely to be Second Life rather than holiday life?
Schools may save on heating bills for an extra week – a real boon when their budgets are so stretched – but the picture looks bleak for children living in underheated homes and dependent on school meals.
Of course, if the half term had been earlier, I would've had to sacrifice my addiction to the ongoing political soap opera. How wonderfully convenient that a general election has been called this week! This meant I could use up several hours watching coverage from Parliament. Time to study the form and admire the BBC graphics on the news, without worrying about the effect of insomnia on the next day’s teaching.
Unfortunately, we can’t guarantee such entertainment from the House of Commons every year. So wouldn’t it be better to extend the summer break – because, after all, any learning loss will already have happened by the time we get to the end of the long vacation. This would also allow teachers and students a few more hours in the sun? Then, once the new year begins, we can get down to a more business-like momentum.
Yvonne Williams is head of English and drama at a school in the South of England