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Guest blog: Longer school day, shorter holidays? It's not good for kids to be micromanaged by parents or schools

(13 Posts)
KateMumsnet (MNHQ) Sun 21-Apr-13 10:43:19

Last week, Education Secretary Michael Gove appeared to back the idea of a longer day and reduced holidays for schoolchildren. Here Mumsnet blogger, teacher and education commentator Francis Gilbert, who blogs at Tales Behind the Schoolroom Door, gives his thoughts from the frontline.

Let us know what you think - and if you blog on this issue don't forget to post your URL on the thread.

"My pupils were quite upset today because they were very worried that they would lose their school holidays and have to stay in school until midnight. They'd watched the news items on the BBC saying that Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, is planning to shorten the school holidays and lengthen the school day. None of my students were keen on these ideas. 'I think I'd kill myself if I had to spend all my holidays in school!' one opined.

I soothed them because I'd actually had the privilege of listening to Mr Gove's speech first hand in the audience: I was speaking at the Spectator schools conference which he kicked off (I'd had got permission to skip school for a day!) Being the Media Studies teacher I am, I videoed his whole speech; it can be found here on YouTube channel; his brief comments about holidays is here. If you listen to it carefully, you'll see that Gove doesn't actually say he's going to change the law. In the Q&A afterwards it became clear that he merely supports academies and free schools which already have shorter holidays and longer days. Furthermore, as Janet Downs notes in her Local Schools Network blog, he's actually mislead the public about this issue by suggesting that school children in the Far East spend more time in school - they don't!

I last wrote about this issue for the Observer in July 2011 when I sparred with Barbara Ellen about whether the summer holidays were too long. I argued passionately that the summer holidays are a great gift of freedom that we should give to all children and that it would dreadful to take them away. A couple of years on, I think I've modified my views a little: I now think school communities -- rather than the Education Secretary -- should decide on these issues. Ellen's points in the article are very strong; some children, poor children in particular, are disadvantaged by the long holidays. Frequently, they have nothing to do and actually would far prefer to be in school -- if it's a nice school. In these sorts of cases, if communities feel that they need to keep schools open then I think they should, but I think it should be 'light touch'; children should all the fun things that they don't get to do in term time. My son's school, the brilliant Bethnal Green Academy, runs fun activities for students, particularly younger ones during the holidays, and revision classes for exam classes. Many schools do this, but largely these activities are voluntary.

What does the research say about the holidays? Does it show that children's performance suffer if they are on holiday too much -- as Michael Gove and other claims? Well, yes and no. Some research backs up my own observation that children from low-income families suffer a dip in academic attainment as a result of the summer which leads to a widening of the attainment gap. However, it also shows that middle-class children actually benefit academically from longer holidays; they read more, go to the library, go on enriching trips and come back better able to learn than before. Some researchers have argued for the 'faucet theory' which compares school to being like a tap which is switched off during the holidays; the poor children stop 'drinking' from it, but the wealthier pupils find that their parents compensate by switching on their own taps. This, of course, leads to inequality, and perpetuates the myth that poorer students are less intelligent than their wealthier counter-parts. A good solution to this is to offer good quality education to poorer students in the form of holiday camps, but in these times of austerity, is that going to happen?

It's a complex issue, which really needs local communities -- not just schools -- to be at the heart of a discussion about how they want to help their young people learn and thrive. Centralised dictats such as the Education Secretary prescribing longer holidays and school days are not going to work; that would just lead to our children being locked up in school for far longer. There's quite a bit of research that possibly that school can actually harm children; we've seen a dramatic rise in depression and suicide rates in school-age pupils recently, which some psychologists attribute to loss of free play. This makes eminent sense to me; I really worry about the way in which schools have become overly academic and too exam focused in recent years. Having taught for twenty years and being a parent myself, I realise that one of the most important things for a child is to be free to play. Lots of great psychologists from Freud to Piaget have stressed play's central role in the formation of fully-rounded individuals. Personally, if I was the Education Secretary I'd be encouraging children to play more, both in and out of school. If you're interested in this, please support Play England and their vital charter:

-Children have the right to play
-Every child needs time and space to play
-Adults should let children play
-Children should be able to play freely in their local areas
-Children value and benefit from staffed play provision
-Children's play is enriched by skilled playworkers
-Children need time and space to play at school
-Children sometimes need extra support to enjoy their right to play

This is why I'm very reluctant to suggest that we should be extending the school day across the board, particularly if it means that children are sitting in formal, academic lessons from 7am-6pm, which some commentators are suggesting. One of the most vital skills that children need to acquire is autonomy and initiative; they need to explore the world outside the confines of school. They need to be bored and find things for themselves to do; it's not good for them to be micro-managed either by their parents or schools. The brilliant Professor Guy Claxton and his drive to build 'learning power' in our students would concur; he has very eloquently about the need for children to make mistakes and to feel free in order to become better learners.

This said, I can see real value in schools offering voluntary extra-curricular activities; these can help harried parents who are working long hours and really assist in a child's development. But they need to be voluntary in my view; compelling all children to stay in school would turn the whole these classes into drudgery.

I know my pupils are much more supportive of Play England's injunctions to get children out in the fresh air and mucking around, rather than any of the Education Secretary's dreary suggestions."

Francis Gilbert's The Last Day of Term is published by Short Books.

JustGiveMeFiveMinutes Sun 21-Apr-13 13:46:28

I don't understand this.

On one hand the commentator is saying that children from poorer families suffer because they have less to do over the holidays whilst middle-class children enjoy lots of activities. On the other hand doing too much and not getting bored is bad for children.

What question are we actually being asked here confused

at least it's not about smacking.

teachers will always be very vocal about why this is bad for children and how hard worked and put upon they are unsurprisingly.

i'm all for the alternative personally of letting us all work school hours only and have 12 weeks off a year but i can't see that happening.

the trouble with the school day and year is it was designed for a time where mums were at home, the wealthy never had to deal with the kids and the poor could socially acceptably put them to work in the fields or let them play in the streets from dusk till dawn etc.

at some point we clearly have to do something to bring work and school into a more compatible relationship and clearly teachers aren't the ones to consult given their vested interest in preserving 12wks paid holidays and a shorter working day than anyone.

yes i know teachers work hard - i was a secondary school teacher for years and it is hard work but tbh no harder work than many people do with a third of the holidays and hours more per day.

what seems a nonsense is to have publicly funded buildings and facilities sitting empty much of the day and a fifth of the year whilst parents desperately struggle to find childcare/suitable care and facilities for their children. it wouldn't have to be teachers who staffed school activities in 'holiday' time but the facilities should be being used to serve public needs and activities would be far cheaper given that there are no rent/hire overheads or liability insurance etc needed for the space.

sorry that's 13 weeks off a year. poor hardworked little lambs <prepares for slaughter>

oh and those people who work with a third of the holidays and longer hours just as hard as teachers often do so for far less pay plus the additional financial burden of paying for childcare throughout the holidays that teachers avoid.

stargirl1701 Sun 21-Apr-13 19:38:20

We don't get paid for the 66 days holidays. In Scotland, 40 days are paid annual leave and 26 days are unpaid school closure days. I think as children get older it is reasonable to extend the school day. A 16 year old who leaves school (still possible in Scotland) would be working a full 40 hour week (if they can ever get a job) so it would be reasonable for 16 year old students to be in school for this amount of time. It would be very expensive though. Higher taxes?

I would fight to stop the school day from being extended in the early years. Children fall asleep in Primary 1 now with 25 hours teacher contact time.

I think schools should be open in the holidays to offer a wide variety of extra curricular activities. But, that doesn't mean formal teaching with trained teachers - it would be unsuitable and bloody expensive. Play workers, youth workers, etc. could be deployed in this role. Parents would need to pay though - it is childcare.

We need to be careful not to confuse education with childcare.

Lilypad34 Sun 21-Apr-13 21:17:31

I think school holidays should be reduced, it's difficult for some parents who work but are unable to pay ridiculous child care fees or get adequate time off. Not all parents can afford to not work or afford child care during long holidays.

NotAnotherPackedLunch Sun 21-Apr-13 21:42:23

Reducing the school holidays would be a nightmare for some working parents.
In many work places it is already hard to share out the holiday time between colleagues who all want to go on holiday with their children. What is needed is better holiday care and activities for the whole range of school ages.

skyebluesapphire Sun 21-Apr-13 23:01:01

I think the summer holidays should be four weeks maximum . I don't think that the school day should be any longer than 9 to 4 or 9 to 5 as they get older. My DD is in after school club one day a week and her day is 9 to 5.30. It is a very long day for a five year old .

Our school is now trying to ban holidays in term time which will hit farming families and low income families very hard. They may get 13 weeks holiday but nobody can afford to use them!

SmileAndPeopleSmileWithYou Mon 22-Apr-13 08:11:06

I think this is an interesting debate that will never come to a conclusion.
I agree with a lot of the things said already.

Swallowedafly - I am a teacher (but don't worry, I'm not about to start an argument) I just want to point out to you that teachers do have to pay for childcare in the holidays as nurseries charge for 51 weeks, it doesn't matter if a child attends or not. So for many with young children it is still a financial factor.
I do agree with you about teachers workload being about the same as many others with high pressure jobs, I'm not so sure about the pay being less for them however, from people I have encountered it seems to be similar (if not slightly higher).

Generally, I think the article hits the nail on the head. The school day would not be more effective if it were longer and I believe it would have a bad effect on children's health and well being.
It is a good idea that schools could be open throughout most of the holidays and be a lot more play focused. I wouldn't mind working at a setting like this for some of my holidays. I would however want to be paid for it as my current salary is for what I currently work.

I would love education as a whole to be more lighthearted then I could focus on teaching passionately and imaginatively! Something I feel somewhat ristricted with at the moment.

slightlysoupstained Mon 22-Apr-13 09:20:33

Contrast what the article is saying about how essential free unstructured play is (esp this link showing how lack of free play may lead to anxiety and depression ) with the latest from Elizabeth Truss: "toddlers "running around with no sense of purpose""

Every time these threads are posted some people point out that school isn't childcare and others clearly believe absolutely that a primary purpose of school is indeed that of providing childcare for working parents.

Obviously school is not childcare. Obviously some parents truly believe that it is, and that they are entitled to more childcare, free to them at the point of use and financed by taxes, regardless of whether it is in the interests of children.

It seems to me that the length of school days and school holidays has nothing to do with childcare, and the lack of affordable childcare is an issue that should be addressed separately. Perhaps school buildings and facilities could be used, but with different staff, as others have suggested.

Everybody knows at heart that children will not be better off with a longer school day or less holiday, the whole preparing for work thing is a red herring (if you change working hours or go back after maternity leave you adjust within a month or two, you don't have to prepare from the age of 4). Childcare is a separate issue and should be dealt with separately.

Well thank goodness! At last some moderate views. It would be nice if Gove made the effort to explain himself properly and show that he understands what children really need. For myself, I remain largely unconvinced of his ability to do that. I wrote about his recent comments here: www.actuallymummy.co.uk/2013/04/19/a-letter-to-mr-gove/

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