Our children must learn to be independent; too much school can harm that...

Francis Gilbert's picture
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 my 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 lectured 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.

This article first appeared on the Mumsnet Guest Bloggers site.
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