Jayne Dowle: Rip up exercise book and start again on schools

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IT’S the Easter holidays, but my son Jack has been to school.

He’s not very happy about that, but I am. His teachers have enrolled him on Lexia, a programme which helps pupils who are struggling with literacy. This involves extra work in term-time, and to his dismay, it now involves extra work during the holidays. He was “invited” to his classroom to take part in a special programme of concentrated learning, sweetened only by the promise of a free lunch.

Imagine if you were 12 and all your friends were lying in bed late, chilling out, watching TV or playing a computer game, and you had to get up, get dressed
and get out of the door. He
 wasn’t exactly enthusiastic the other day. However, as I pointed out, it was only one day of the entire holidays. I felt it was a sacrifice worth making, so he went.

I also embrace the fact that his school, an academy, is thinking out of the box. Lessons in the holidays? We need more initiatives like this in education. When you think about it, our schools are huge repositories of learning, yet they are closed for more than three months every year. What a waste of resources this is. We need schools to think not just in terms of a rigid timetable, but to consider what works best to encourage children to learn and remember what they have learned.

For too long now, our schools have been stuck in a rigid pattern. Long, exhausting terms followed by long, exhausting holidays – well, exhausting
 for the parents at least. Although to be honest, I do welcome the chance to spend some proper quality time with both my children, I do sometimes wonder about the point of school holidays.

Too often pupils run out of the door when the school bell rings and promptly forget everything they have learned until the holidays are over. There is even an official term for it – “summer learning loss”. Studies show that, in the worst-case scenarios, this can mean youngsters lose up to three months’ worth of learning over a long break.

For those who regard learning as a challenge, like my son, this poses particular difficulties. He finds it hard enough to take in and retain information in a normal week. In the holidays,
it’s as if all the data is erased
from his head. I can only feel sorry for the teachers who have to spend the first couple of weeks of a new term playing catch-up to bring pupils back up to speed again.

By the time everyone is fully awake and with the programme, it’s time for another holiday.

Does this sound cruel? It’s not meant to. It’s meant to sound pragmatic, and I can assure you it comes from a mother concerned only that her children make the most of every opportunity which school offers them. As I keep telling my son, you only get one chance and you really should make the most of every day. No parent wants their child to saunter through their secondary school only to fail to achieve the basic level of qualifications and face the prospect of going to college to re-sit all their GCSEs.

Yet, I talk to parents all the time whose children have ended up in this time-wasting situation. What goes wrong? Despite everything which has been done to improve standards in our schools by government after government, we still have a problem with persuading pupils to take responsibility for their own learning.

Too many youngsters skim along the surface of school life without actually getting to grips with the work in front of them. This problem is especially acute in our region. Yorkshire has the lowest level of pupils achieving five good GCSEs, including English and maths, the lowest scores for seven-year-old pupils in reading, writing and maths, and the highest level of absence in the entire country. This is simply not good enough.

No wonder then that the 15 local education authorities in Yorkshire and the Humber are putting together a major “action plan” to raise attainment. The ultimate aim of this is to turn Yorkshire into a “world leader” in education. This is ambitious indeed, and I wish them well with it. If it is to be achieved though, let’s not be shy of bringing about revolutionary change.

Governments can bring in free schools and tinker with the curriculum, but this has to start with everyone involved –teachers, parents, and pupils themselves asking some pretty fundamental questions about education. What is school actually for? What do we expect it to offer to our children? How should schools be run? How can each school best organise the way it teaches? When should schools be open? To be
honest, if we are to make progress, we have to rip up the exercise book and start all over again.

The Easter holidays might seem like a strange time to be contemplating all of this. However, as Jack will tell
you, there is no time like
the present for seizing the initiative.