Being, as we are, high on pretension and low on cash, we are past masters at teaching our children the value of the Annual Membership.
From a small local museum up to one of the twin shibboleths of English Heritage or National Trust ( never – horrors! – at the same time), we have becoming experts at producing a laminated card magician-like from our wallets, and crafting a family day out from little more than a damp ruin, frugal sandwiches and a car full of wellies.
Naturally, our children have been known to rebel. In an effort to reconcile them to their parents’ stinginess, and distract them from the thoughts of ten-pin-bowling, cinema trips or football matches apparently enjoyed by their peers, we try to help them relate to what they’re seeing, and repopulate our surroundings for them with the children who once lived there for real. Dynastic child-brides and infant rulers if we’re at an old castle; gorgeous mini-me’s in diminutive adult dress if we’re in a gallery or stately home (“Is that really a boy, mum? In a dress?!!!”) and, saddest of all, tiny miners and skivvies when we visit their absolute favourite, Beamish.
It reinforces to me how recent our concept of “childhood” is. The recreated school at Beamish (along with my own grandparents) is a reminder that even when compulsory education was introduced, relatively recently, children would leave the (rather forbidding-looking) classroom in their early teens to find a job and leave childhood behind.
My eldest son, who is seven, has just discovered the Famous Five series, and is devouring adventure after adventure enjoyed by children with apparently minimal supervision and endless school holidays. He is yet to become as obsessed as I remember being (trying to persuade the mother of a friend to take down the mock-Tudor panelling in her suburban 30s semi to find the smugglers’ passage I was sure lay behind) although I am sure that it is only a matter of time.
So far, so smugly middle-class. Much as I like to think of Enid Blyton as capturing the halcyon days of a golden period of childhood, I know that she hopelessly romanticises both the time and freedom enjoyed by her comfortably-off characters (although my dad, a miner’s son, recollects long summers spent happily exploring the countryside around his Durham village home – although without meeting any kidnappers, or smugglers, unfortunately).
Whatever freedom there was for children, has, for most, disappeared these days. What is left to distinguish them from adults is their time: the hours after school, the half-terms, the long holidays, in which to play and dream and read and be bored. Although not an immediate reason for me giving up work, I am grateful now that my children have a lot of time at home, where they don’t have to deal with the interactions with others which seem to take up almost as much energy as their lessons. They love school, but by Fridays and – especially – the end of the term, they are exhausted.
I’ve been mulling this over for a while, but Michael Gove’s comments yesterday proposing longer school days and shorter holidays have made me think even more. My initial response was to reject what he suggests, although I think that on reflection there probably is an argument to be made to spread term time more evenly across the year, perhaps, as one tweet which I read suggested, with 6×6 week blocks, interspersed with more, but shorter, holidays than at present. The autumn term is (with apologies for the pun) interminable; the last few weeks of the summer term too often feel like a slow run down to the long, long holidays.
I can’t agree, though, that a reduction in the amount of time off overall would be a good thing. I feel that children ideally need some time to recuperate and just to be – not continually structured and socialised. Additionally, although I’m not a teacher, many of my family are, and I know how hard they work and how drained they are at the end of term. As with the proposals for longer days, I think there are two (political) factors at play – the pressure to help working parents, and the public belief, too often pandered to, that teachers work the same hours at their pupils.
By all means support schools in offering high quality, affordable (hell, even subsidised) wrap around care which makes it easier on both parents and children where working hours clash with the school envelope. Just don’t conflate education with childcare, and don’t extend lesson time at the cost of what children actually learn.
Doubtless teachers could come in earlier and stay later to supervise children, but when, then, would they do their preparation and marking, and what would be the knock-on effect to the quality of education? It’s a cheap shot, but there are no proposals that I’m aware of to require hospital doctors to hang around after their shifts to make beds and prepare their patients’ breakfasts; nor politicians to return to their offices after debates to do a spot of dusting and save the taxpayer the expense of parliamentary cleaners, though in each case they doubtless could do so. Teachers, as the name suggests, teach – and even those who remain unswervably convinced that they have a cushy number should perhaps pause to wonder whether it would be in children’s best interests to sit at their desks, at a very young age, for hours longer than at present, being crammed with facts like so many little battery chickens.
The more paranoid part of me also raises an eyebrow at extending school days explicitly to accommodate parental working patterns. Given the recent rhetoric around the desirability of “hard-working” (ie, dual income) families, am I wrong to be nervous about the implications of tying educational provision so closely to a family’s circumstances? How, too, does this tie in with the recent announcement to withdraw even what limited financial assistance there was available for working parents of school-age children?
As always, it’s hard to distinguish between a knee-jerk reaction to a threat to the status quo (after all, we are, most of us, deeply conservative by nature especially where our children are concerned) and a genuine opposition to a proposed change which seems deeply flawed. I just hope that in this Gradgrind-like climate of facts, function and financial considerations, our children are allowed to be just that for as long as possible.