Why parents want a break from the long school holidays

Schools are about to finish for the summer holidays. But, asks Chris Bond, is a six-week break too long?

IT’S that time of year you either love or loathe – the school summer holidays.

For kids it means no more exams, no more homework and no more uniforms (except the fashion one, of course) at least for a while, and for teachers it’s a time to unwind after a long, stressful, term.

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For parents, though, it’s a logistical nightmare as they try and juggle their work diaries so that their children aren’t left at home on their own. Yes, school’s out for summer. But the question is should it be out for quite so long?

The six-week school summer holiday has been a fixture on our calendar for as long as anyone can remember. But these days, with so many working parents and the cost of childcare having gone through the roof, it may be time for a re-think.

Many working families have to rely on grandparents’ support during the summer holidays, but this unpaid help isn’t seen as a long-term answer. According to the charity Grandparents Plus, the 14 million grandparents in this country provide childcare worth £3.9bn and research suggests they are increasingly being relied upon.

However, many grandparents feel guilty if they ever say “no” to looking after their grandchildren, while others have to cancel their own plans so they can help out.

One possible solution is to consign the six-week holiday to the educational dustbin. Those in favour argue that shorter breaks would make sure children didn’t forget what they had been taught and that by having shorter holidays and shorter terms, pupils will be more productive. Plus it would be a big help to families where both parents work.

But this was mooted before, in 2003, when teaching unions scuppered a proposal for a six-term year. Pam Milner, the West and North Yorkshire national executive member for the NASUWT union, believes any new move to cut summer holidays would be met by huge opposition. “There was a move a few years ago to move to a six-week term with four weeks summer holidays, which went down like a lead balloon,” she says.

“There are more and more demands being put on teachers and they have more hoops to jump through. Having a six-week break gives teachers the chance to re-charge their batteries,” she says.

Those who aren’t teachers might cast envious glances in their direction, thinking they spend most of this time either sunbathing or trying to improve their golf handicap, but Mrs Milner says in reality teachers spend a fair amount of their time off working.

“I don’t know of any teacher who takes all six weeks off. Most teachers spend at least two weeks in school either clearing up after last year, or getting ready for the year ahead.”

She says with teachers contending with a pay freeze and facing proposed changes to their pensions, the six-week summer holiday is seen as one of the few remaining benefits. “To have our holiday entitlement reduced by parent power is a nonsense, it would just be another instance where teachers are having to make unreasonable adjustments.”

She believes any attempt to change the six weeks holiday would have a detrimental effect. “Most teachers are very dedicated and want to do the best they can, but to cut summer holidays would be a step too far and what would happen is more and more people would leave the profession.”

At the David Young Community Academy in Leeds they have had a four-week summer holiday ever since opening in September 2006, and principal Ros McMullen believes the system works.

“Everyone needs a holiday, including kids, but it’s an awfully long time to be away, six weeks. It’s one thing when children are being taken around museums and galleries and are brought up to read outside school, but when families can’t afford to give them that rich cultural experience then six weeks without having any educational benefit can be very damaging.”

She says parents prefer the shorter four-week break.

“There aren’t any parents in the country that like the six-week holidays. It’s hugely expensive, not just if you’re going away, but when you’re at home with your kids you end up spending more and we just think it’s nonsense to have six weeks.

“We organise our whole calendar so that no term is longer than six weeks, so we don’t have horrendously long terms where people start getting fraught. But nobody loses out, teachers get the same holidays as other schools, we just do it differently.”