You’d be hard pressed to find a teacher at 11pm this evening who is not either drunk or asleep (perhaps both). Tonight marks the start of the Half Term Holiday. It is a great British institution; scourge of parents and blessed saint of education workers. For the sake of readers outside this Sceptred Isle- Half Term is a week off observed three times a year, in the middle of each of the three schooling terms/semesters.
Hold on. There are several misnomers in that previous statement.
First, Half Term is a week off for the children, NOT the staff. The teachers and staff will continue working, mostly preparing lessons and resources and getting to the paperwork that has piled up in the preceding weeks. But we can get to that paperwork without little Johnny standing at our shoulders, blowing his obligatory snot-bubbles as he tells you about his pet cat for the fifteenth time. We can write our lesson notes without casting a constant watch on the playground door; making certain little Wayne’s mum hasn’t turned up drunk again and is threatening to beat up Mackenzie’s mum because “she dissed me new TOWIE tattoo. She did, ya know. Me mate told me she did in Tesco. And this school does nuffink to stop it. Nuffink…”
Even us Head Teachers can reduce the height of the in-tray without a timid tap on our doors and an even more timid voice calling through “Thought you would want to know one of the dinner ladies is crying in the staffroom because the her third-cousin-twice-removed has died in Outer Mongolia and you won’t give her 2 months paid leave of absence to attend the funeral.” (I usually reply along the lines of ‘Crying doesn’t work on me. It is a weapon people use. And besides, some local government, twinkie-skinned, pus-socket is demanding this evaluative report on the amount of pressure 8 year olds put on their pencil and its correlation with future back pain. It is marked URGENT. Look! URGENT! And it is the third flippin’ time they’ve asked for it’)!
Secondly, Half Term Holiday doesn’t come at the half-way point of the term. Terms can be 16, 18, 12, 11, 14 sometimes even 13 weeks long. Today’s drunken (and perhaps sleepy) celebrations are taking place only four weeks since the Easter break and subsequent additional national holiday to celebrate the Royal Wedding. The second half of the term will be 8 weeks long. This might not seem too much of an issue but units of work tend to run over half terms of study. Therefore, SOMETHING has to be crammed into the 4 week block. Subsequently the curriculum has to be administered at a double-quick pace. This leads to all sorts of bizarre lesson combinations such as ‘Today class, we will be learning how King Henry VIII could have used improper fractions to determine if your bean seed will grow on a wet paper towel, without soil, in an arid eco-system but from the perspective of someone who celebrates the Hindu faith. We will be writing a poem about it. And making a collage.’
The reason for this short, four week, half term of study should be obvious to everyone. It is Whitsun for goodness’ sake! Summer term half term holidays have to coincide with Whitsun. It is a day which originated from the Pagans and was later hijacked by Christianity to mark the Pentecost. Not many self-professed Christians can define Whitsun’s meaning. Its meaning is even more lost in a school like mine, attended and staffed by Muslims at a ratio of around 9:1. I consider myself a Christian but I can confirm that I won’t be doing anything special to mark Whitsun. Forgive me, if you were expecting a Hallmark card wishing you A Joyous Whitsun, From Across the Miles. It…uh…probably…uh… got lost in the post.
This leads me to the third misnomer: Half Term Holidays were never intended to be holidays. Holidays implies celebration. It implies special food, parties, perhaps a cake. Half Term Holiday originated with the initial structuring of the English schooling system and the powers-that-be of the day wanting to encourage the masses to attend. Granted, a main aim of the early formalised schooling format was to teach young people to read/write just enough so they could serve as servants to the English nobility. However, the people of time were mostly peasant farmers: serfs who needed their children to be working the land, seeding, tending and harvesting meagre crops just to keep the family from starving. Reading and writing skills were low down the job description. So the elite came up with the bright idea of a week off three times a year (in October for harvest, in February for planting, in May for tending- oh and to mark Whitsun of course). The peasants were appeased.
I won’t be spending much time tending crops during the coming week away from school. I will try to get out on our fire escape and water the basil I planted in February. That is, if our two cats haven’t made the tub I planted into an impromptu litter box (and before you say ANYTHING, Little Johnny, it is the first time I mentioned our cats, now go blow your nose; Kleenex is your friend). Likewise, I doubt many of the pupils at my school will be spending much time toiling in the fields during the next seven days.
But the original formula of the school year being based around the agricultural year remains embedded. This will be the last of the three Half Term Holidays of the school year. Come the end of July, the school will close for 6 weeks, again an ancient link to our farming past and a chance to really get to grips with those crops in the field.
In a way, I find all this comforting. English culture is, in my opinion, refreshingly tolerate, liberal and progressive but it always has one foot firmly rooted in the past. It is a strange and eccentric balance, but it works.
The coming week’s blogs are most likely to more reflective of my other life; as a father, husband, friend and general human being rather than that of a Head Teacher. Fair warning if you read solely because you are interested in the business of managing dysfunctional schools. I would encourage you to take a few moments to enjoy the blog I read myself The Jersey Wife. The writing is crisp, humorous and peppered with perception from someone very different, yet startling similar to myself.
As for me I am off to water the basil and perhaps peruse Jersey Wife’s blog for a Whitsun cake recipe.
Have a good Half Term Holiday.
Keep the Faith,