Please, Mr Gove, leave school timings well alone!

Ellen's daughter, ready to return to school

Ellen's daughter, ready to return to school - Credit: Archant

Ellen Widdup’s escape to the country

This time last week my daughter was itching to go back to school.

“I’m bored,” she whined as I washed and pressed her pinafore, marched her off to Clarks for a shiny new pair of shoes and insisted the hairdresser cut off her tangles into a smart, sleek style for the new term.

“Me too,” I thought.

The six-week summer holiday has finally come to an end. And not a moment too soon.


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Yes, we have had a great break. The weather has been top-notch, which has meant many a blissful day on the beach, trips to Aldeburgh, Southwold and Orford, sword fights at Framlingham Castle, climbing trees in the shady woods of Rendlesham and bike rides galore.

But by the final week we had all run out of steam.

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Both my children were yearning for a return to normality, routine, earlier bedtimes and stricter discipline. And inundated with work projects I haven’t had time to get on with, I was desperate for a bit of time, space and peace and quiet.

But here’s the thing. Now they have been back a week I miss them terribly.

There are no more leisurely mornings of scrambled egg breakfasts, no more muddy faces and happy smiles at teatime and no more evenings of barbecues with the children bouncing happily on the trampoline until way past bedtime.

It’s true that although we may love to moan about the seeming interminability of school holidays, there is also something completely wonderful about allowing children – and their parents – a respite from the whirl of business that exists during term-time.

The summer holiday is there to give children a chance to indulge in a long stretch of exploration, adventure and freedom. And let’s face it, breaks like those are an invaluable luxury that last only for 16 years and will be desperately missed once they are gone and replaced by the restrictions of workplace annual leave.

It is for this reason that I am completely opposed to Michael Gove’s suggestion that school days should be longer and school vacations shorter.

The education secretary claims this system works in the Far East – in particular Singapore, Hong Kong, China and Vietnam.

I don’t know where he has got this idea from. In Singapore pupils have a long school break but theirs is between November and December, and in Hong Kong the government specifies an annual minimum of 190 teaching days, which is the same as here.

In China, holidays start in early July and end in late August, while in Shanghai they run from June to August for almost eight weeks. Most European countries have a summer break of at least nine weeks – almost a month more than kids in the UK.

Gove’s latest education bombshell is to announce legislation which could allow all schools to pick and choose when they have holiday time.

Under the current system, state school pupils across the UK usually get two weeks off at Christmas and Easter, as well as the six weeks in the summer and three week-long half-term breaks.

If the new Bill is passed, the changes, which apply to local authority-run schools in England only, would come into effect in September 2015.

It could mean one school could opt for three weeks at summer and two weeks each half-term, while another has a full seven weeks in one stretch. I predict utter chaos.

And what about the call for longer school hours?

Now, most parents will agree with me that by the time the bell rings at 3.30pm children are tired, hungry and grumpy. The littlest ones are completely shattered come Friday. I am sure this is because a child’s ability to concentrate is finite. There is only so much you can cram into the working day before they lose patience.

But Gove reckons extending the school day by an hour or so would make life easier for working parents. I thought this was why schools these days offer breakfast and after-school clubsl. Don’t they already make allowances for mums and dads who cannot be at the gates for normal pick-up?

Of course I can appreciate the juggling act of a working parent. I am one. But schools are not meant to be crèches serving parents who need a babysitter while they work; they are meant to be places of stimulation and education.

I know we do not live in an ideal world where employers are considerate of the need for family time and flexible on working hours, but, at the same time, if you opt to have a child, surely you need to accept that any childcare issues are your problem to deal with and you cannot expect the state to foot the bill?

Personally, I think the Government need to rethink their reforms.

Instead of splashing the cash on extra-long school days, why not offer free school meals to every primary school pupil? Or provide more computers and better sports equipment?

Let’s concentrate on making the six hours kids already spend in school time – and therefore money – well spent. And for goodness sake, don’t rob them of their holiday time to boot.

See me after class, Mr Gove.

n Please email me at EllenWiddup@journalist.com or find me on Twitter @EllenWiddup.

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