Thursday, April 18, 2013

Michael Gove talks nonsense on the history of school holidays

From the Independent website this evening:
Schoolchildren must have shorter holidays and spend more time each day in the classroom so Britain is not disadvantaged in the global economic race, Michael Gove demanded yesterday. 
The Education Secretary warned that the current school timetable is out of date and only fit for the agricultural economy of the 19th century – where children had to have long summer holidays to help in the fields
I have more time for Gove than is usual in Liberal Democrat circles. I support the idea of allowing new providers to open state schools and the teaching unions' arguments against his idea that children should, you know, acquire knowledge from their schooling were merely embarrassing.

But a moment's thought will show that Gove's claim about the origin of the long summer school holiday is nonsense. The schools go back in early September (and even late August here in Leicestershire) just as the harvest is taking place.

An article by Adi Bloom from the TES back in 2009 fills in the details:
It is as regular a fixture of the school calendar as results day: the annual outcry over the length of the summer holidays. Each year, critics bemoan the irrelevance of a system based on farmers’ need to have their children free to help with the harvest. 
But Jacob Middleton, a historian at London University’s Birkbeck College, said this is myth: school summer holidays have nothing to do with the agricultural calendar. 
By the late 18th century, English farms were largely mechanised. Smallholdings were increasingly rare, and inventions such as the threshing machine made it easier to harvest hundreds of acres. “There wasn’t enough work for all the adult men,” Mr Middleton said. “And the Factory Act in the 1830s put increasing restrictions on children in work. So it’s extremely unlikely that children were working.”
It's almost as if the man who thinks himself qualified to dictate what every schoolchild should learn about history hasn't bothered to do any research and just repeated a tired and invalid old argument!

This determination to abolish the long summer holidays has never been attractive to me - we heard a lot of it in the early days of New Labour too.

It arises from two unhealthy trends in modern British society. The first is a lack of faith in our own culture and institutions. Just as David Cameron told us we had to give Margaret Thatcher a state funeral or other countries would think it strange of us, so we have to look over our shoulder at other countries as we decide when our children should go to school.

A robust belief in British institutions and the British people used to be on of the more attractive features of Conservatism. That belief is long dead - as the bright young Tory things who wrote Britannia Unchained demonstrated.

The other unhealthy trend is that children cannot possibly fill their time constructively unless they are marshalled by adults. Left to their own devices they will get into trouble, turn feral or be abducted,

So the argument that we should have long summer holidays because children enjoy them is nowhere heard.


Simon said...

Which is all very well and good, but doesn't explain why the school holidays are when they are and as long as they are!

There is of course a difference between English and Scottish schools in that the Scottish schools have their holidays about 3 weeks earlier. This coincides with their earlier August bank holiday and begs the question whether there is a relationship between the last week of the vacation and the August Bank holiday, in which case did English schools have earlier holidays when we too had our August bank holiday at the beginning of the month?

Alternatively, and I suspect more likely, isn't the long summer vacation in British schools merely a reflection of the (longer) summer vacation in British universities, less about 3 weeks each end). That itself dates back to the long summer vacation taken across all administrative, judicial and ecclesiastical institutions, which can hardly be put down to farming, since few people in those institutions would stoop so low, and is much more a reflection of 1 - the long period of ordinary time in the church year following Witsun (and especially the feast of St John), the desire to avoid pestilence in urban areas during the warm summer months and to enjoy country pursuits and, probably above all, the bloody minded conservative desire to carry on doing things the way the Roman's did!

If this is right doesn't the long summer vacation reflect just the sort of values Gove most admires (our religious heritage, aristocratic traditions and appreciation of the classical world)?

One last point. Although he is right to say that other countries have longer school years, it appears that Hong Kong, Singapore and South Korea all have exactly the same arrangements for summer holidays, with the exception that Singapore take their holiday in November-January.

Jonathan Calder said...

I suggest you read the TES article I link to.

Niles said...

His main point - that schools in other countries have longer days and terms - also turns out to be factually wrong.

Vanessa said...

Taking a week off summer and putting it on Christmas could work.

I asked some kids handily lying around in my house if they would prefer 6 and 2 or 5 and 3. They said 5 and 3.

Kids can get a bit bored and restless after 6 to 7 weeks of holidays. In mid-Winter when the days are shorter it is a drag to get out of bed in the dark to go to school. Younger ones get more tired.

It's an extra week in mid-Winter to lie aound in bed and play X-Box, and not have to get out of bed and go to school.