Issue 129 - 2023 Autumn term
Next time someone moans to you about all the holidays teachers get, just suggest they become one too and wait for the deafening silence, says Carl Smith. 

Happy holidays

Carl Smith
Principal, Casterton College
Here’s a tip for young teachers... if there still are any left. When someone moans about all the holidays teachers get, just agree with them and suggest that they become a teacher too. The silence is deafening.

Take the Christmas holidays for example – a heady mix of flu, exam marking and alcohol, though not necessarily in that order. Not so much a holiday, more a medical procedure. 

And apparently, the long summer holidays were all down to the harvests – kids were needed in the fields you see. Except they weren’t. At least not by 1880 when education became compulsory. By that time, more than 80% of the population lived in cities and wouldn’t recognise a threshing machine if it hit them in the face, although they’d probably feel it. Even the 20% who did live in the countryside would not bother with a harvest in mid-August, because harvests start in mid-September.

Blame parents instead, or rather urban middle-class parents. It seems that by the early 19th century, a summer recess had become common among city professionals and, surprisingly, they wanted to spend some of it with their children. Teachers, who had a curious notion that they were also professionals, wanted to do the same, so everyone was a winner. You see even then teachers knew you wouldn’t get much out of kids in hot weather and although global warming hadn’t really got going yet it could still get a bit sweaty in mid-August. 

Harvests had nothing to do with it. 
 

Knock down the walls 

It's like that other old chestnut beloved of trendy school architects and avant-garde educational thinkers that the traditional classroom-based model of learning is a throwback to the factory age. Knock down the walls, they cry, and free their minds from the tyranny of the timetable. Never mind that even a cursory knowledge of Victorian factories would tell you that they were open-plan affairs with no walls at all – a bit like those 1970s comprehensives where a child on the back row could hear more of the geography lesson next door than they could of their own. Anyway, most schools in 1880 were elementary; secondary schools were just for posh kids, who wouldn’t be seen dead working in a factory... unless they owned it.

The thing about classroom-based learning is, try as we may, no one has yet figured out a better way to do it, or a cheaper way for that matter, unless you had them all in the hall, Victorian style, which would certainly save a few bob. Better still to have them learn remotely. Oh, for those happy days when a child would accidentally switch on their camera, and you’d see them dancing around to Taylor Swift while you were talking about the Battle of Hastings. Such fun.

In balmy pre-pandemic times, it became fashionable to argue that long holidays were detrimental to children’s learning, particularly disadvantaged children. You could hardly turn the pages of TES without someone saying that the summer holidays should be reduced to four weeks, until people realised holidays would become even more expensive, and you couldn’t devise a better way of reducing the current meagre supply of teachers if you tried, which is presumably why no-one says it anymore.

Now, I may be missing something here, but surely the best way to help disadvantaged children is by making them less disadvantaged, say, by spending a bit more on them in the first place. You know the sort of thing, reducing child poverty and all that. Then schools wouldn’t have to ‘close the gap’ at all and we could all enjoy the holidays together. Such fun.

Want the last word?
Last word always welcomes contributions from members. If you’d like to share your humorous observations of school life, email Permjit Mann at leader@ascl.org.uk ASCL offers a modest honorarium.

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