There are two (related) attitudes that are fairly prevalent in education which should be in question. One is that absence from school for, say, a week, is appalling. The second is that education necessarily takes place when a teacher is present and, conversely, cannot be taking place when a teacher is not present.
If a middle-class parent takes a child out of school to get two weeks skiing that are actually in the skiing season (and one of which is in term time), it is treated with the shock and horror, as if the child’s life was being blighted.
Taking a child away from school is considered a kind of sacrilege. In theory this is because everyone (supposedly apart from the parents) are so concerned about education. But education now is rather like religion (or religious practice, as it has been at various times in history). Form has come to be considered more important than the content.
Just as people at certain times in the past have been considered virtuous just because they turn up at church, regardless of what they believe in their hearts or how they behave otherwise, so attendance at school is now regarded as crucially important, regardless of how much the child is (or is not) learning and regardly of what educational activity may be taking place outside school. The attending of school is itself regarded as the absolute good. Attending school has become like attending church.
This has, in turn, resulted in a new definition of education. Education is not learning any more. A teacher – one of the high priests of this new religion – has to be there, otherwise it is not education. And conversely, if a teacher is present, it must be education, regardless of what is happening.
Here are couple of stories to illustrate what I mean. In the last few years, I have visited numerous schools in order to select a short list for my elder daughter to go to at eleven. One of them did ‘Food Technology’. This is a phrase which transforms what used to be called ‘cooking’ into education ( if a mother taught it, it would not be education). I asked on this visit why ‘food technology’ was taught. The teacher said it was on the national curriculum (as if that were complete justification in itself) and it also developed manual dexterity and organisational skills. It made me think how you could justify virtually any activity on similar grounds. You could say that learning torture or ‘pain technology’ (as it would be called) could be said to develop inter-personal skills and the ability to handle conflict. Come to that, it develops the skill of working out whether someone is telling the truth or just saying anything in order to avoid further excruciating pain. Very educational – but only if a teacher is present, of course.
On my own two week skiing holiday with my younger daughter, we came across an English school party which was, like us, skiing during term time. I must have raised an eyebrow because the teacher set about justify it as an educational experience. The children had been to the Folk Museum (that would be half a day, at most, out of the six or seven), the teacher had set the children to find out some Norwegian words. Meanwhile, using the equipment meant the children had to organise themselves (more ‘organisational skill’ which, again, only a teacher can transmit). All these things, of course, could easily take place when a child is with its parents. But without a teacher present, it would be not be education. It would be truanting.
(In the course of my younger daughter’s truanting, incidentally, she, too, was taken to the Folk Museum, I read her A Christmas Carol from beginning to end, she spent two one hour sessions on the first two chapters of So You Really Want to Learn French – during which I realised how little French she had learnt at school – , she learnt the spelling of 20 English words, she practised her seven and eight times tables, she visited a house of Hanseatic League in Bergen, as well as an archeological museum there and an open fish market and we took a bus to visit Edvard Grieg’s summer house and the nearby museum. She fell asleep that night listening to Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor. But, as I say, it can’t have been educational. No teacher was present.)
Here, in brief, are the arguments against brief, occasional, holiday absences used against parents who are highly motivated towards their child’s academic success:
1. “It disrupts the pattern of learning. ”
There may be some truth to this. But a school could respond by offering to let the parents know the work that will be missed so that the parents could keep up with it while on holiday. A more usual attitude of the school is to keep the work being done a state secret and to indicate to the child that his/her chances of becoming a prefect or having a decent role in the school play will be destroyed if he/she does not do what the school wants. The school uses blackmail to intimidate the child and cause confusion in his/her mind.
2. “It ‘sends the wrong message’ – presumably the message that school/education is not important. ”
It could possibly send this message. More likely, it will send the message that school is not all-important, which is different and a sensible message. Natural intelligence, character, inter-personal relations, careers.. these all can be related to the impact of schools but they can also develop very significantly as a result of other influences.
3. “There are long holidays. You should be able to plan them without cutting into school time.”
The skiing season (ie reliable, good snow) almost exactly co-incides with the school term. There is only a one week holiday in the spring term. So it is difficult to have a two-week skiing holiday without missing one week. The long summer holidays were created (in the 19th century?) to enable children to help parents with bringing in the harvest. Schools, then, were responsive to what parents wanted. If schools were responsive now, they would introduce a two week holiday in mid-skiing season, or, perhaps, a transferable week’s holiday – transferable between the autumn and spring terms for the convenience of families. The other factor of course is that holidays become vastly more expensive and crowded when everyone takes them in the same week. The school’s attitude to this is: ‘your money is your problem, not ours’.