Tom Gutteridge: It really is time we brought our academic timetable into the modern age

Journal columnist Tom Gutteridge says educators and politicians seem oblivious to the problems of working parents

Owen Humphreys/PA Wire A plane leaving Newcastle Airport
A plane leaving Newcastle Airport

How wonderful – yet another hour of the wretched half term holiday to fill.

After time went backwards yesterday morning, Jo and I desperately tried to think of ways to keep our household asleep. Short of giving everyone a dose of Valium, we couldn’t come up with a solution, and as a result Izzy and the three dogs bounced into our room at 6.30am, ready for exercise and entertainment.

We tried reasoning with them all: It’s not getting-up-time for another hour, we said, indicating the newly-turned-back alarm clock, but they wouldn’t be told. Izzy pointed at the dawn streaming through the window, while the dogs turned threatening little circles by the front door. Time waits for neither dog nor Rice Krispies. So much for the “lie in” the BBC weatherman promised us the night before.

This has added even more time to what was always going to be a very long week. Why, it seems only the day before yesterday that we dropped Izzy off at school to start her Year One, and already a sixth of that year has passed.

I’m not quite sure where our system of school holidays began, but you can bet it’s rooted in some bygone era when children were expected to go and work in the fields, rather than have them hanging around the house waiting to be ferried to the movies.

That might explain Britain’s crazy educational calendar. In the good old days children were useful slaves, obligingly toiling for us down on the farm whenever the seasons dictated.

Our long summer holiday was nothing to do with Swallows and Amazons, and everything to do with child labour. I could just imagine Izzy’s reaction if I told her she had to spend this week in the garden sweeping the leaves and doing the pruning.

It really is time we brought our academic timetable into the modern age.

We start the school day absurdly early and finish before 4 o’clock only because, I’m guessing, that’s the way Victorian farming communities and factories determined it. Otherwise I doubt our 19th century educational reforms would have got to the starting gate.

Yet most working parents now have a 9.30 to 5.30 working day, which means that a massive post-school childcaring industry has built itself up, costing us a fortune. Surely we should be doing exactly what our forefathers did, and constructing our children’s schedule around our own, rather than having to fit our lives around the demands of an anachronistic educational agenda?

That’s why I have some sympathy for organisations like Parents Want A Say, which wants the government to relax the rules on taking children out of school.

Last week the authorities bowed under the pressure of 200,000 signatures and stopped fining parents for taking their children to funerals and weddings in term-time.

But the educators and politicians still seem oblivious to the problems of poorer working parents, who can’t afford the huge premium that Easyjet and Ryanair charge on flights during our narrow school holiday windows.

However, rather than allowing those parents to deprive their children of education during termtime, a better solution would be to rejig the school year.

If we moved our system to, say, six terms of six weeks, with no half-terms in the middle and nice long gaps in between, still keeping the 190 days a year that our teachers are obliged to work in the classroom, but increasing their teaching hours to a normal working day, then the airlines might lose a bit of income and the teaching unions might get a bit uppity, but more people would be able to enjoy precious family time together in the sun.

That’s what Jo and I would really like to be doing with Izzy this week, but because travel and hotels are so expensive, instead we’re pairing up with other parents, organizing “play dates”, and praying that local museums have come up with something vaguely entertaining for our five year olds. Jo and I have taken time off work, in our company’s busiest week of the year, which is costing us money and creating a scheduling nightmare.

Maybe we should take up farming – or teaching.

www.blogfromthenorth.com

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