Tuesday, 16 August 2011

End the long summer holiday?

It's been an odd summer, having just finished in one post and preparing for a major move out to the Persian Gulf for a new teaching job. If you thought moving home in the UK was a task, you should try reducing your life to 70kg, selling any vehicles you own and arranging house lets - and all before coping with the well-meaning flurry of friends and family wishing to bid you farewell and notifying you misguidedly that no-one in Arab countries is allowed to do anything, ever. I'm exhausted despite having the long summer holidays to sort it all out in. I have a vague recollection from childhood of being bored as hell two weeks before the end of that holiday every year - but not any more. Either I've got much better at entertaining myself or have a hell of a lot more to do.

I'm a big fan of travelling and have developed a predictably dull teacher routine of one very long trip every summer holidays so setting aside my customary jaunt round Europe in order to be practical and responsible feels dismal. My feeling-hard-done-by is self-afflicted but none the less miserable for it. I keep trying to tell myself that I can use my new teaching base as a point to explore India or South-east Asia, which I've never been able to afford to get to before, again in equally long or longer holidays, but that's sparse consolation right now. I almost wish, perversely, that I only had a week to sort it in so I would be forced to make swift and brutal decisions. And so all this wallowing got me to thinking the unthinable - should we stop having a holiday of this length?

Ah - I can hear the hissing of teachers nationwide through strained teeth, like angry geese. Or perhaps something more aggressive than geese: threaten the long holiday and teachers turn positively lupine at you. If you're the Daily Mail this is because they are cossetted public sector spongers with no sense of what a real job looks like: witness this typically-poisonous article slyly tarring teachers for not wanting to work hard. Anyone in the industry knows otherwise. And yet many of us would confess that the fixed structure of (almost) nationally-identical term dates makes no sense at all. Isn't there some middle way in discussing this?

There are multiple good reasons for cutting the long holiday, and we can start by dividing them into (mostly) uncontenious reasons, which teachers wouldn't see as an attack on their rights or sanity, and the cultural assault reason propogated by opponents of the profession. To start with the uncontentious: (1) Teachers pay more for their holidays than anyone else because the fixed dates create a high-demand arrangement. Embittered, we have attempted to afflict all other parents with this same heightened cost, by insiting children can never, ever, ever be taken out of school on holiday in termtime - or they will fail everything, ever. Sane parents nod politely and remove the child anyway, not least when a summer in Rome or Paris is infinitely more educational, in the holistic sense, than grinding through those agonising last two weeks of exhausted term, filled with wasps, DVDs and French bingo lessons. (2) Half-terms are an astonishing waste of time. In my experience in every post I've ever taught in, there's a 50% chance I'll collapse into illness and exhaustion at the start of every holiday, and start to feel human again about 4-5 days in. This makes a half-term week-off effectively a protracted illness followed by a weekend too busy on the roads to go anywhere anyway. Half-terms have never ceased to irritate me in their worthlessness, and I had rather have a couple of long weekends scattered through a full term, and three weeks at Easter and Christmas instead. (3) The terms are woefully imbalanced. September to Christmas, descending into darkness and SAD despair (additionally fueled by commercial cynicism) is a Promethean torture; the period to Easter is comparatively sane at first, although grisly with failing resolutions, rising in panic towards exam season and then summer a confusion of testing and bizarrely shortened weeks trailing away into purposeless nothing. (4) The long summer holiday clearly harms most the prospects of more disadvantaged children, a well-documented phenomenon, nodded-to amongst wider points by Mick Waters in the TES recently. You might argue his article should be taken with a pinch of salt - the opening line is a give-away that here is a Labour-era educational guru repositing to apply for high favour under the Tories - but Waters has always been a credible champion of young people and his points are valid despite the kow-towing to the Gove line. Most importantly, he also hits: (5) teachers rise and fall in energy levels in unison, which cannot be good for a collective body or the institution it forms. Everyone in schools knows there's a tide in a term, and we all ride it together - ten thousand staff morning briefings around the country in the last week of each term are filled with headteachers wearily paraphrasing Henry V's "Once more unto the breach...", in varying levels of irony and sincerity - and we are indeed like a force-marched army grinding to a useless halt as the campaigning season runs out. Consider that students work much less hard than us (NB, please, Michael Gove) and keeping them at school more consistently would (a) be good for them and (b) be welcomed by most parents; the key to Waters' point is an implicit acknowledgement that you would need to keep teacher days at 190, while  students study more; teachers would take some of their holiday allowance in term-time. This has complications to which I'll return below. But at the very least you could change term dates to make more sense.

Sigh. Didn't we go through all this debate a decade and more ago? About five-term years? We did. In my (Gloucestershire) experience it got hijacked at the county level, with some dimlar jobsworth going "Yeah, five terms sounds like more learning than three. You know what's even better? SIX terms. And it's easier too, cos we can just split each of the three terms not into two half-terms but into two 'terms', that sounds more and better. Great. Master will be pleased with Igor. I don't have to work anything out, but I can relabel everything to confuse everyone. If no-one knows what to call the 'half-term holiday' anymore, because now it's between two 'terms', maybe the Daily Mail won't notice their existence. And I get to spend at least three weeks of 'work' giving seminars on this tokenistic change. Gosh, I hope the Tories don't win the next election and cut my valueless post." Six terms is a nonsense, but five might be worthwhile - two before Christmas and three after, and you'd need to ignore / railroad Easter (who really cares, now? Honestly?)

And now the insincere and inflammatory right-wing reason for cutting the holidays: (6) Teachers don't work hard enough and get "all these holidays." Witness the TES community rants on this fevered issue. The real answer is simpler: teacher stress levels are far too high compared with almost any other job reports the Guardian, while the equivalent Mail article blusters about "15,000 teachers go sick EVERY day" as if it were shifty-eyed workshy malevolence - that's 3.5% of the workforce, you moron, like in any other profession on any given day. Teachers are incredibly highly stressed; their mental illness and career dropouts rates are things of horror compared to any other graduate profession; we get the holidays because we need them. The Health & Safety Executive's (impartial) analysis, replicated graphically here by the NUT, is a nightmare to observe (please, click that link and spend a few minutes looking.) It is very overtly ironic that the main parental / right-wing press complaint about the holidays amounts to "Good God, [even with nanny / childcare / summercamp], I can't handle my 1/2/3 children for 6 weeks, please take them back as soon as possible" because the implied subtext is: "to add to the 25-30 you handle for 40 weeks." (See teacher Francis Gilbert make mincemeat of parent Barbara Ellen's illogic in this structured debate.) A walk round a tourist site on Saturday in August, or Asda on any Friday night, will affirm for most teachers the complete inability of people to handle even two children compared to what we do: the plea that teachers should work hard because they're slackers is a smokescreen covering parental desperation and incompetence. Well, tough: you chose childbirth, now take responsibility. Teachers are not babysitters and our termtime workload is insanity by the standards of any other profession: in what job do you have not ONE major hour-long meeting a day but FIVE, with no time to prepare for them, and that meeting is with 25 clients, who don't really understand what it's about, five of whom want to swear at you and provoke confrontation while another ten withhold most co-operation? Name me another industry that works under those parameters if you dare. In addition, bureaucratically, teachers work extremely hard in evenings and often weekends in term-time - personally I don't begrudge this that much - but need extensive breaks to balance this. Soldiers and oil rig workers have extended, high-intensity tours of duty followed by much lighter respite windows and the same rationale applies with teaching. I am two totally different people: a work robot in termtime, dedicated heavily, professionally, and continuously, but emotionally drained and physically exhausted - beyond what most jobs demand - and myself, free to recover and have the identity and hobbies most people in most jobs consider normal, in holidays. Teachers do not have "extra" time off versus other workers: rather, we condense our stress / workload and our free time where others spread it more evenly. This is partly a necessity, because good learning should be intense; partly an effect of the fact that classes over about 18 in number (half that if there are multiple learning or behavioural difficulties) really can't be taught with genuine individual support - yet our system is predicated on contact numbers double these. Having spent time in the tutorial / crammer sector, I can tell you that I could teach those small numbers year-round without holidays at all, by comparison with state-sector classes and workloads.

This doesn't kill the argument about summer holidays. If we set aside the unreasonable argument, the good arguments for cutting it are still incredibly compelling by themselves. Why shouldn't every local council set slightly different term dates, spreading the holiday market and reducing prices for teachers and all parents alike? In light of the recent riots, differing term dates across regions would make universal dissatisfaction less widespread and enable police resources to be concentrated more easily. It would enable consultancy / cross-county support services / extended services offers to be spread more effectively for schools. This seems a non-brainer. Set your dates differently to adjacent counties and the benefits are obvious. I'm going to teach in the Gulf, where the climate dictates the calendar - only a couple of days at half-terms and a lot longer again than the UK in the summer, in order to flee the desert at its worst - but were this not an issue, or were I setting up a free school, I'd have five eight-week terms starting (like the Scots) before August ended, each with a long weekend "exeat" in the middle instead of a half-term, with 3 week breaks inbetween each and only slightly longer in summer - the same 190 days split sensibly. Christmas would be preserved but archaic dates like Easter and Whitsun provided only as bank holidays, not included in the structure of weeks off.

Mick Waters' more radical suggestions are tougher but worth a brief flight of fancy. Imagine (as I think Gove justifiably does, but sadly without doing his budgetary or teacher-workload maths) schools open 50 weeks a year, twelve hours a day. Imagine staff working the appropriate 190 days a year on rolling dates, booking their holidays to a central calendar and taking one another's classes in the same department while colleagues took their holidays, the school always having the right number of staff drawn from a pool Waters rightly identifies as needing to be 20% larger; imagine student total holidays being fewer (to the relief of parents) and with an understanding approach to parents removing students for culturally-valuable holidays in termtime. Don't baulk at the idea of leaving your class in a colleague's hands: in a good school, with good teachers (NB, ones that are not as tired as under the fixed-terms system!), and stability of (valued!) teachers to ensure students had positive relationships with all staff, there would be not only no loss but potentially a refreshing change for students in taking a module with a different staff member for 3 weeks; county groups, federations or academy groups would need to (at last) responsibly and sustainably source a pool of regular support / supply staff and cultivate them with better-than-the-current-ragged-treatment they receive; all but the smallest schools would be able to programme like this without difficulty. In other words - we'd function like normal business organisations with sensible depth of staffing capacity. Since total holidays were shorter for students, some of the (very valuable) Extended Schools provision in summer could be run alongside / integrated with normal schooling - an awkward divide at present. There is a difficulty of course, Mr. Gove - far from teachers not working hard enough, you currently have a system predicated on driving half a million skilled graduates to the verge of nervous collapse three times a year and effectively no effective staffing reserve in any school - so you currently have a term dates system structured as a prop to barely prevent that. If you want all the "Imagine" possiblities above, you'd need a 20% rise in education funding at a stroke, wouldn't you?

But at the very least - we could change to a sensible five-term year right now, without cost or difficulty, to the benefit of all. Still knee-deep in packing boxes after three weeks I may be, and with a fortnight of chaos yet to come - but even I see the sense in shorter summer holidays.