Gather a group of teachers together, and there are bound to be disagreements about everything under the sun, but one thing they are likely to agree on: they need lots of time off. Because teaching is such a demanding job, because it tends to take over one’s whole life, because teachers need to spend time with friends and family and recharge their batteries . . . all very reasonable points to be sure, but how exclusive are they to teachers, and how much do they apply to hard working professionals across the board?
Don’t doctors need time to spend with their families? Isn’t nursing a very demanding job? Couldn’t managing a business tend to take over one’s life? Why is it, then, that teachers have so much more time off than other professionals? Three months off each year in the state system, and typically more in the independent sector, is a huge proportion of the year. No-one is arguing for giving other professionals this amount of holiday, but it has remained firmly in place in the teaching profession. And of course, you won’t find many teachers arguing against it.
The fact is, of course, that no-one ever sat down and worked out what would be a reasonable amount of holiday for the professions based on the varying demands of each. Such a calculation would be fraught with impossibly subjective considerations. So the traditional amount of holiday for teachers has grown up because it is . . . traditional. It has been handed down from previous generations for all kinds of reasons, related to factors such as the agricultural cycle, and however radical progressive educators might have been regarding other elements of schooling, for some reason, they have remained remarkably conservative about this one. Surely one of the reasons the unions hate academies and free schools so much is that they allow headteachers to negotiate term times and working hours independent of long standing traditions which are very favourable to teachers?
But surely it is reasonable to rethink the arrangement of terms and holidays? The long summer break, in particular, is very damaging for educational continuity. If we are aiming for our pupils to remember what we teach them, regularly spaced repetition is vital. Long gaps are not helpful in the slightest. Among other reasons, this must be one of the factors leading to the popularity of summer programmes amongst US charter schools.
A starting point for rethinking is simply to do the arithmetic, and compare the hours. In an ordinary job, working forty hours a week and with twenty days’ leave plus public holidays, someone would work 1856 hours a year. Divide this by thirty-nine weeks of term and you get about 47.6 hours’ work a week. So if teachers really are working nearly fifty hours a week every week of term time, then they are ‘earning’ their time off, at least compared to an average worker.
But is it a good idea to work fifty or more hours a week? I have five children, and I am very keen to spend time with them all year round, not just during school holidays. Wouldn’t it be better if I had a more balanced life and worked fewer hours each week, but more spread out over the year?
Isn’t it time to slay this sacred cow, and think really hard about the benefits of a more balanced year, with less intensive but longer terms, and shorter holidays? If we spread out the teaching over the year, we could arrange the timetable more rationally as well. For example, we could schedule all academic work in the morning and leave the afternoon for practical or physical activities.
This is not an argument for working teachers into the ground. It is a reconsideration of time-honoured traditions, for the sake of maximising the educational benefit of all the hours we put in.