This week, there was a lot of debate going on about families taking their children out of school for holidays during term-time. It was pertinent to me because, this same week, we had taken our son out of school for a holiday during term-time. Why would I do that?
Well, my husband works on short contracts, for which he has no benefits: No pension, no sick pay, no 'holiday time' .... If he cannot work, he isn't paid. There are advantages to this way of working, too ... He likes the flexibility it gives him, and being a supply (freelance) teacher, he is not bound by all the stresses that come with permanent teaching contracts, which preserves his mental health. We have learned this. So I am not complaining. Through the summer, there being no supply work, he takes a short contract at our local University teaching academic English to international students. It is good work, and he enjoys it. We have often hoped this would develop into a more permanent contract - but it never does. Permanent contracts at Universities are coveted nowadays, and staff are recruited on a needs basis, so there is no guarantee. The short contracts run from July - September, perfect to take a supply teacher over the summer break (because there is no holiday pay, remember?) And sometimes, he will be put on to another block of teaching, a new short contract, from September - Christmas. This is how it goes. It is somewhat uncertain, but it works for us. It is OK; we get by.
What does it mean for family holidays? Well, in the summer, we often take one week's holiday in June, before he starts the summer stretch at the University. When we were home educating all four of our boys, of course, this was no issue at all. One of the wonderful benefits of home educating is being able to take holidays off-peak. Last year, we had one son in Year 10 (our eldest). I took him out for a week on an unauthorised absence. His attendance record was good, so no issue. This year, we found we had one week between our eldest son's last GCSE exam and the start of my husband's contract. One week - in June. Since said son has now finished school, we again had just one son in Year 10 (our second boy) who needed an unauthorised absence. His attendance this year has also been good. We took him out for the week. Criticise me if you want to.
But do you know what? It makes me mad, because some families do not have the luxury of being able to pick and choose when to take these opportunities. Lots of families, actually. If you do have that luxury, then good for you ... But understand that other people's reality is not the same as yours. There may not be too many more years when we are all able to go away together ... The older boys are growing up. Precious time together as a family is important. Quality time for parents to spend with their children is important. The opportunity to get out of the city, to visit some places, to enjoy travelling together is important. Time to rest and refresh, to enjoy relaxing together, to understand the importance of these things for our well-being is important. The mad pressures and expectations of work need to be counter-acted somehow. Children need to learn that balance is important in life.
This year, we did consider going abroad, but in the end, we couldn't justify the cost for one week. It would have been a stretch. So we decided to go to East Sussex. This was important to me, because it is my home, my place of belonging; it is where I grew up. And I wanted to share that with the boys, to impart that sense of place, to tell them the stories and take them to the special locations that mean something to me. I wanted them to see me there, and to understand where I come from ... This is important. And we had the most amazing sunshine, a beautiful, beautiful week weather-wise. This winter I have been ill with Vitamin D deficiency and debilitating pain in my back. I needed a holiday in the sun. I needed to be in all that beauty, to be outside, to walk and swim and renew my strength. Because these things are important. And, in the scheme of all of this, taking one boy out of school for 5 days was not that big a deal. Maybe you think he will have missed out, that his education will be damaged. But I disagree. Because all the things I have mentioned here are important too, even more important, perhaps, than maths and English and tests and grades, of feeling inferior to others, and like he doesn't measure up.
I watched some feature on breakfast TV whilst we were away, debating this very question .... And a school was mentioned that are giving children an enrichment week, a week that can be taken for 'enrichment' during term-time. But it had to be the week specified - a week in July. And, worse, a list of expectations was to be given to parents to complete - with suggested activities for children's enrichment - which must be logged and documented. Well, there's nothing like a compulsory worksheet to spoil the fun. Does this mean learning doesn't happen if it isn't logged? No enrichment is taking place if it can't be ticked off against the learning goals? This makes me laugh - because it is just so patronising! Do you not see? It smacks of the 'experts' telling parents what is and isn't enriching to their children ... Because watching a football game with Dad, well, that isn't enriching enough .... Or playing on video games? Do the powers that be think we have no ideas of our own, that we cannot decide for ourselves what is enriching, what we want to share and impart to our children? It is culturally biased, and classist, a 'we know better than you' approach which seeks to control and to monitor and encroaches on families' freedoms. It is terrible really, don't you think?
I watched my boys looking at the eroding cliffs at Birling Gap, and thought about the unit in GCSE Geography my son has been studying on coastal formation. When learning is experiential, it comes alive for children, it gives them points of reference, experiences on which to hang their expanding knowledge. Does filling out a worksheet make the learning more real? I don't think so ... But it might just kill the joy, the interest, the sense of wonder. I watched my smallest son spending time with his older brothers. It is rare now that the four of them are all together. He learned to swim without floats this week from being with his older brothers in the pool. He wants to be just like them. And my 16 year old was so observant and watchful of him whilst he learned, staying close to make sure he was safe. This emotional engagement is important for him, because it is not something which comes easily to him. Is there a worksheet to complete for that? And for the boys to have their Dad around, on a week off, relaxed and present. To be able to go to the international tennis tournament with him at Eastbourne, and to enjoy that together, a shared passion .... Is there a tick sheet, a learning objective that will make that more valuable, more memorable? I don't think so.
All families should be allowed to take their children on holiday at times which suit their own personal situation because we should believe in families, in good mental health and well-being, in inter-generational relationships, in shared values, in going to places that root us, that help us understand who we are and where we come from, and yes, in experiential learning. But most importantly, because children are born to parents, into families, to places, into communities, not to the State or into schools, not to contracts or into institutions.
The long summer holidays were designed to enable children to help their families and communities bring in the harvest. Schools flexed around the needs of home. Now that many parents struggle with the long six-week summer break, isn't it time we re-thought holiday times around the needs of families and communities once more?