There are a number of reasons why I am fundamentally opposed to the new freedoms that Michael Gove has decided to offer us in terms of setting our own school terms and dates, and none of them have much to do with teachers or with me.
Mr Gove decided on Monday that we could set our own term dates. There is nothing wrong with this in the right hands, but like everything else, it could be abused. Teachers don’t seem to like it very much, but we don’t know for sure, because it is only the teacher unions who say anything much, and whether they represent teachers is hard to gauge. Quite a lot of teachers would, I suspect, like a more balanced approach to term length.
But whatever we decide, I think it is important that we keep the two key religious holidays of Easter and Christmas as spaces for reflection and celebration, maintain them as school holidays (of a negotiable length, I suppose) and live with the ridiculous back-and-forth we have inherited from the Golden Number that links Jewish festivals and thus Easter to the phases of the moon. This is just interesting and it would be a shame to lose it.
Interestingly, the one academy in Milton Keynes that did radically change its term dates has now brought them back into the bounds of sensibleness for the sake of other schools and parents.
But I think it is critical for the mental and educational health of children that we have long summer holidays, preferably with no interference or expectation from the school system. There is little point rehearsing all the many arguments against long summer holidays, because they flow from a set of presuppositions that I reject in their entirety. They have to do with an industrial, productivity-based model of education, in which children are seen as vessels to be filled (and which seriously leak in the summer holidays, apparently), machines to be well-oiled (in the best sense of the phrase) so that they contribute to something we call The Economy. Some simple safeguards, like the ones we have put into place to ensure that children reconnect strongly with their learning of the term before through starting exercise books from the beginning of July, should suffice. School is not education, and education is not school. They are different things. School, which is largely industrial, is superimposed upon the educational experience of a child, which is largely familial (of varying quality), communal (ditto in spades) and the product of relationship. School seeks to organise children and teach them a sociability that they used to have before school was brought in and allowed parents to think we would do everything for them. Part of the joy of a long summer holidays is that it forces parents to reengage with the products of their loins.
OK, so that is argument number one. Long summer holidays force parents to re-engage for long periods with their children, in work, in play, in chores around the house, in education. This is good, because it undermines everyone’s thinking about The Economy. It makes us all realise that we don’t have to work longer to be happier or more productive to serve our communities and grow our children. We can do things for free. We can volunteer. We can celebrate together. We can be together. We can destroy our iPhones and iPods and anything else starting with i that takes us away from reality. We can find out that a blackberry or a raspberry pie is something you eat, not something you lose or obey. Education is a lot more than school. Really.
Argument number two. We can take deep pleasure in doing nothing, and in thinking hard. This is difficult in the age of electronic games and stupid television (what pastor David Wilkerson once called the Babylonian idiot box), so perhaps one purpose of home education (for such summer holidays are) is to teach children the long term valuelessness of digital media as entertainment. Parents are helpless these days in the face of their children’s demands for more electronic gadgets, mainly because they don’t have the time to think the arguments through that they believe in but can’t quite marshal in the time available. A good summer break should give them the space to do this.
Argument number three. This flows from Argument number two. Space in the summer holidays give opportunity to pass on to our children things that we as parents had passed on to us. Make elderflower cordial. Bake bread. Fish in lakes. Learn to use a penknife to carve things. Get really accurate with a bow and arrow. Dismantle an engine and reassemble it. Learn the alphabet backwards (this, from my mum, by the way – why she taught me this I have no idea). Learn to hunt in woods. Collect thick grass and make woven mats. Learn Morse code. Grow vegetables. We have been given beautiful things from our parents. Don’t let the electronic stuff get in the way of the real. And share the books you loved as a child with your children.
Argument number four. Hard work and the pleasure it brings us do not need to be confined to school learning. There is much to do in and around the house, working alongside our parents, in the garden, on the farm (if you are lucky enough to be brought up on a farm), caring for domestic animals, getting a job in a supermarket and practising being nice to people who are on their mobile phones, learning to use natural materials to build things, helping clear a woodland or a building site. There is much that is hard work that needs to be done. A school in the south of Buckinghamshire is reputed to have had a “curriculum for unemployment” – things that you could do to make yourself useful in those times when you were not part of the workforce – gardening, bricklaying, carpentry, etc.
Argument number five. Children’s imaginations need time to flower, and this is not going to happen if they have their brains constantly bombarded by stimuli on things they may not want to learn about, or electronic stimuli that occupy all their learning pathways and stuff up the hippocampus with outlandish creatures. Learning to imagine takes a huge amount of time and quite a lot of boredom, such as the summer holidays provides. I had a conversation recently with a Y4 child of my acquaintance (not in our school, though I daresay this could easily be replicated) who spends a fair amount of his life online gaming. At his school, he is asked to write stories and he told me that he could only write about monsters. His teacher had challenged him to write about something else, and so he wrote about robots. After a while, he told me “I had to find something for the robots to destroy, so I created a monster”. What, precisely what, are we doing to our children? Read the excellent Anthony Esolen on this in his book Ten ways to destroy the imagination of your child. Inventing an imaginary planet called Tormentaria, he says:
Now, no-one could endure the Tormentarian regime without what is called down time, lest the cables fray and snap and the moving parts wear thin. But the Tormentarians, master organisers that they are, parcel out that time most wisely. In the old days, before they had mastered the arts of human management, they simply squeezed school time into 8 or 9 months, and left the children otherwise perfectly free, generally in the summer, when the weather was best. Some scholars used to excuse the Tormentarians for this lapse of judgment on the grounds that people were agrarian, and children needed for work in the fields. Of course this was nonsense. One plants in the spring and reaps in the fall. No, summers were left free because they are the best times for humans to be together, as families and neighbours. But now, the Tormentarians have squeezed the summer holidays down to two months or even a month and a half, and have invaded it to boot with “enrichment assignments”, guaranteed to ensure that every child will conceive a loathing of great literature, having had it turned into a spoil sport (p53).
Argument number six. Forgetting the dross helps us recall the effective, and to process it. Einstein wisely said that “education was what was remained when what had been learnt had been forgotten”. Every year we teach children worthless things – such is the nature of our curriculum – but we squeal as teachers if over 6 weeks of glorious summer (not in the UK, presumably) the little darlings have forgotten how to write a non-fiction piece of persuasive argument. I am sorry. If it was that well taught, it will be well learnt.
Argument number 7. Children need space and time to explore their surroundings, encounter danger, with friends, without adults, without having to get home to do their homework. All of this is best done in long holidays.
Argument number 8. We are bidden to teach a child the way they should go, and afterwards they will not depart from it. (Proverbs 22:6). This has the implication that if we do not teach a child to create large chunks of free space and connection with nature and community, in extended holidays, in unpressured situations, we are failing them in being able to access this kind of beautiful relaxation and quietness of spirit as an adult. I have a friend who was taught at age 10 to hunt by his father in the bush outside Bulawayo. He knew the dangers of bush life, he knew and learnt more about how to find his way through scrubland and find his way home again, which snakes would hurt him and which wouldn’t, and how to deal with any dangers he might encounter. Interesting to see what a measured personality he is. No direct correlation, but an expectation that those who have freedom as children find it easier to gain peace as adults. The number of grown-ups who take their mobile phones with them on holiday, the number who take Blackberries (the type you lose or obey) in case their work wants them for anything, the number who take work with them (yes, guilty!) – it is no wonder that we find extended times of peace and quiet so tricky and challenging.
I could go on, but won’t. The obvious benefits of a long break are so clear that the industrial educators are stamping their little feet in fury. My advice. Let them stamp, as you head into the woods with a stick, a fishing net and a bag for berries.