Wednesday, 27 July 2011

My Summer Holidays

It's as much a sign of the summer holidays as the back-to-school sales push, the ice cream van's relentless jingle and the onset of torrential rain. I refer, of course, to the annual bitch and whine about the length of the summer holidays. Do a Google News search for "school holidays", and there are calls for companies to not respond to increased demand by upping the price of limited commodities (i.e. flights and hotel rooms) and a ritual demonisation of all schoolchildren and their pathological inability (one would think) to avoid hoax calls, vandalism and anti-social behaviour.

Thanks to The Edudicator, I have now seen what the Right Wing think, courtesy of the Torygraph and the Daily Fail. If you suffer from low blood pressure, I highly recommend clicking on the "worst rated" comments list, for a load of barely literate blustering that will result in you putting your fist through the computer screen.

The Torygraph is an interesting one. The general consensus among teachers is that the students are absolutely bloody knackered by the end of the academic year. This is confirmed by a comment piece in the Grauniad by school-leaver Sara Abbasi, entitled "Please, Mr Gove, leave our summer break alone!". We can sit and discuss the historical reasons for the long summer holiday, that is, needing children to help with the harvest, and how we don't need children in the fields with a sickle for the best part of August anymore (though that would be fun to watch), but she highlights the very modern need for a long holiday.

After mid-June, the kids start to get antsy. They are over-tired. The classrooms are often very hot. Tempers flare up. And good luck trying to get them to do homework. For most of the college year, my AS biology class notched up over 92% attendance and 98% punctuality. When they came back for the "Intro to A2" sessions, attendance dropped to 77%. In the midst of the observations from teachers, the Torygraph suggests that shorter holidays are better for the students, and quotes a study in American Sociological Review.

There you go, a graph that purports to show that children from high-income families do more learning over the summer holidays than their low-income counterparts, and therefore do better in school and get into university. It's approximately what the paper says too, but I've had a pint of Pimms and lemonade, rendering my paper-summarisation magic power greatly reduced. And oh, what a noble cause, for teachers to gallantly sacrifice themselves for the good of the low social classes.

But it seems that this is a classic case of confusing correlation and causation. When I cover this with my AS students (hopefully at a time when I have more than 90% attendance!), we analyse data to see if there is a direct relationship between two variables, or if there is some other factor that has not been considered. And the glaringly obvious omission is parental interest in their children's education. Higher-income families tend to involve parents with a more advanced level of education. People who have a more advanced level of education tend to be keener on education for their children. Are there exceptions to this? Undoubtedly. When I was younger, even on my father's teacher salary, we were very poor, living in the much more expensive Home Counties on one income. But I progressed, and I probably did more summer study than my classmates. Because there wasn't much money we were more resourceful. I used books my father had used and kept. He was able to borrow a computer from the school during the holidays, and I learned to programme in BASIC (and more, I'll have you know, than the 10 PRINT "HELLO", 20 GOTO 10). We went to the local library and borrowed books, and unless I am very much mistaken, the library is still free for children at least.

So in a move that smacks more of recent Labour educational policies, Govey would like to use teachers as substitute parents, making up for the deficiencies of people who don't give a rat's arse about their children's education. Because bollocks to things costing money, there is plenty of free access to learning - it all comes down to parental attitude. And this is in addition to parents whining on all the articles I've quoted, who seem to think it's grossly unfair that they should have to deal with their children for such a long period of time. Clearly this is a horrid surprise that the educational establishment has thrown at parents, and not the status quo for many decades, if not centuries.

Of course, there are those who will claim that teachers do naff all, race the kids out of the door at 3:30pm and swan around on these long 20-week holidays. For 40 weeks of the year, I work from 8am to 6pm, and often until 8pm or 9pm. That doesn't include the work I take home to mark. Someone with a regular office job, working 9am to 5pm with half an hour's lunch break works out at 1,800 hours per year. I can clock up at least 2,000. Maybe there are lawyers and doctors who work longer hours. However, consider that as a lecturer in FE, I am never going to earn more than £35,000, tops. So I've earned that holiday. I spent the first week packing away notes and folders. My holiday ends on 15th August as I go back to prepare for the new college year. My Easter holiday is eaten into each year with revision classes. I don't begrudge these. But expecting me to babysit the children of parents who didn't consider that kids need looking after, and the children of parents who don't give a shit about them, when I've spent 10 hours a day for the entire academic year giving these poor little sods the best education I can, is taking the piss.

I think I need another Pimms.

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