Opinion: Holidays in Term-Time

The controversy over taking children out of school for holidays poses wider questions about education. Should parents who take their children out of school to go on holiday be fined? That was the question at the heart of a recent court case where Isle of Wight council took father Jon Platt to court when he failed to pay a fine for taking his daughter out of school. The High Court decided in his favour, saying that as he had ensured his daughter had attended school regularly, there was no case to answer.

During the case, a number of authorities, including the government, stepped in to voice support for the council’s case, saying that taking children out of school for even one day would damage their education and that of others around them. But what kind of education are they talking about? Interestingly, the National Union of Teachers argues that there are valuable social and cultural benefits to going on holiday – benefits which are all too often overlooked. And when holidays during the summer are so prohibitively expensive, these benefits are in danger of becoming the preserve of the well-off.

What can be gained by going on holiday, then? Well, travelling abroad is an important learning experience for any child. Experiencing a new culture can fuel their natural curiosity to learn about the world, and can fire them with enthusiasm for those French lessons at school… Even just a holiday to the seaside offers the chance for children to do and see things out of the ordinary – to learn about sea life by looking in rock pools or to try different foods, even if it’s simply a traditional Devon cream tea. Why should these experiences only be available to those of the middle classes? Many holidays become cherished family memories which last a lifetime – far more memorable than that Tuesday afternoon literacy lesson they missed.

Simply having time to reconnect with parents and siblings away from the non-stop routine of everyday life is valuable in itself. Children who have parents who are more involved do better at school, and holidays which help to foster and strengthen family relationships are likely to lead to children who are happier, and more well-balanced and, perhaps, likely to do better in school. Relationships with family or friends who live abroad are also something valuable, giving children the chance to hear other perspectives of life and widen their horizons beyond their own hometown.

Little has also been said about families who want to gather together to celebrate their festivals together. All children have time off to celebrate Christmas and Easter – but what of families who want the right to celebrate Diwali or Eid? Must these children miss out on the chance of coming together with their family and community to celebrate a festival which is part of their cultural heritage – and what will be achieved if they do?

No one thinks it’s a good idea if children are continually taken out of school. But learning doesn’t just happen in a classroom. We need to look at the broader picture – and realise that learning comes in all shapes and sizes.

School exclusion may seem like the end of the world, at least as far as education is concerned.It need not be, though.

If you have experienced being excluded from education, you might feel angry at a system that should be helping rather than dismissing you. You might believe that education is pointless, and that getting qualifications is for ‘other’ people. You might listen to proclamations that you’ve ‘missed’ your chance and that your opportunity to learn is over. And if you haven’t been able to attain GCSEs, A Levels or their equivalents, you might be employed in a job that you don’t enjoy. You are also more likely to be earning less, which can make you feel personally unfulfilled. However, whatever your age or circumstance, it is never too late to restart your education and start changing all of this.

It will always be useful to get qualifications. Neither should it be forgotten that, quite apart from its potential career advantages, learning is of course also hugely beneficial for its own sake, and an activity from which you can derive self-fulfilment and increased belief in your own capabilities.

If you have been excluded from education, learning can seem daunting or even impossible. Signing up to a course might seem like too big a first step, but if you start by identifying a subject that interests you, you should discover enough motivation to get going again. Read books and articles about your chosen subject, and take time to form your own opinions about what you’ve read. Once you’ve armed yourself with some knowledge of the area in which you’re interested, you can start to investigate potential courses at college, or through a distance learning provider.

Being excluded from education can be demoralising, and can make learning seem like an unattainable goal. However, it is no longer the case that your only chance to get qualifications is at school. In 2016 there are people of all ages who are taking advantage of a multitude of educational opportunities aimed at people who want the chance to start again. A bit of life experience can go a long way in facilitating educational success, too. So, what are you waiting for?!

State education is on the brink of crisis. According to the Teacher’s Review Body, and supported by independent research, the number of secondary pupils is predicted to rise by 17% between now and 2023. Yet at the same time there is a short-fall in the number of trainee teachers needed to fill present vacancies in a number of key subjects. Young graduates continue to be deterred from entering the profession by, amongst other things, a perceived lack of government support, whilst current trends also indicate a long-term decline in the number of women entering teaching. Experienced teachers, meanwhile, are taking early retirement, with many preferring to opt for part-time work as private tutors. This year will also see a significant reduction in school procurement budgets.

Parents have been quick to react to these changes. Since 2011, there has been a 65% increase in the number of children officially registered as home educated. Currently there are just over 36,000 children receiving out of school education, out of a total school population of 9 million – a small percentage, perhaps, but one that is on the increase, and these figures do not include fifth and sixth formers using distance learning materials out of school to study for their GCSE and A levels.

Traditionally, the reasons given by parents withdrawing their children from full-time education include family lifestyle, special needs, religious convictions, bullying and dissatisfaction with the quality of education provided by the local authority. Increasingly, a lack of specialist qualified teachers is placing a strain on fifth and sixth form provision, affecting languages, science, maths, business studies and IT. The failure to recruit these specialists means there is little scope for broadening the curriculum in ways required by industry and commerce. It may be said that some subjects, such as economics, are actually now being maintained via the use of distance learning.

These changes suggest a shift from the rigid “one fits all” model of education to a far more flexible system – a sort of halfway house, where some provision is provided wholly in school under the supervision of a teacher, whilst other subjects are “bought in” and worked on, out of school hours.

As schools struggle to cope in the present financial climate, distance learning and home tuition is likely to grow. It is, of course, not a universally popular phenomenon; many will argue that this is really the privatisation of education by the back door and therefore to be deplored. Detailed information about the quality and success of home education is, according to one authority, incomplete and in need of improvement. Obviously, if the system is not adequately policed, such concerns can be considered valid. However, if the emergent hybrid is well monitored, as it usually is, it could act as a novel way of maintaining subject provision, and further, of introducing new subjects, such as economics, computer programming or financial accounting into an increasingly arid sixth form provision.

Finally, it is also true to say that hard times such as these will always maintain and emphasise the need to stimulate initiative and change. For those who do not find a home in the mainstream system, home education should be an alternative well worth considering.

In days gone by, academic study was considered a full time occupation. As a result of this, it was often the preserve of the richest and most privileged of our society. The dawn of free university education in the 1970s, however, meant that further learning became much more accessible to a wider pool of potential students. Fast forward to 2015, though, and school and university fees are climbing ever higher. This means that once again, learning is becoming the preserve of those who have financial backing from their families. That doesn’t change the fact that good qualifications still remain sought after by the best employers, of course, so if you want to establish a career that can provide financial stability as well as fulfilment, part-time learning can be a great, more economic option.

If you have any dependants, part-time learning can provide you with the opportunity to study whilst being able to fulfil your responsibilities. Whilst parents or carers often have neither the time nor the money to commit to full-time study, distance learning or an evening class can be a great means of gaining a much needed qualification, and of spreading its cost and commitment over a more manageable period.

If you’re not lucky enough to have a wealthy family to support your academic efforts, you’ll still need to find a way to pay the bills while you study. Learning in a part-time capacity means that you can undertake paid work, and support yourself during your course of study. If you’re able to earn while you learn, you can also gain valuable work experience at the same time as getting your qualifications. Employers will be able to see that you are capable of juggling several projects at once, organizing your time and taking your responsibilities seriously. In today’s glutted job market, these are valuable attributes that can make you stand out amongst other applicants.

The recession of recent years means part-time learning is a much more viable option for those who want to study at the same time as keeping a roof over their heads and feeding their families. Once the preserve of the mature student, part-time study is becoming the only option for young and old who wish to broaden their horizons and gain new qualifications while surviving in a tough economic climate.

512px-Children_computing_by_David_ShankboneThe national curriculum states that children in primary school should learn how to write basic programs, to ‘debug’ (fix mistakes in programs to allow functionality); to use technology to store and organise content; and to understand how technology is used outside of the school setting. It is impossible to ignore the fact that computer literacy is now vital for many aspects of daily living, and children should be equipped with the skills they need as early in their lives as possible.

Information technology is based on logic: the idea is that you follow a set of steps in a particular order so that you can reach a desired outcome. Developing and enhancing the logic skills of children will not only benefit their capabilities with regards to computers and digital devices, it also helps to improve numeracy. Mathematics is also centred around logic, meaning children who have good IT skills will be better able to understand the subject’s problems and concepts.

The study of IT at primary school is also an important part of preparing for secondary school. When children enter secondary school, it is assumed that they will be proficient with and confident in using technology. Although most young people have frequent and regular access to IT at home, and use devices such as PCs, tablets and mobile phones, they might not necessarily understand how they work. Formal education in information technology allows children to start secondary school with the ability to use computers and other devices to organise their work, participate in activities, and engage fully with all aspects of the curriculum.

There is increasing hysteria over children accessing social media sites and apps. The temptation is for parents and teachers to ban all such activities in a bid to protect them. However, banning these sites and apps with no discussion or explanation only makes them more alluring for children. It also means that when they enter secondary school, they are ill prepared for the murky world that can accompany online interaction. Children who study IT at primary school can be better protected from online bullying or abuse by being informed and educated about what is acceptable behaviour, and how and when to get help if it is needed.

Studying IT at primary school can help to develop research skills from a young age. Children who learn how to access the material they need and what kinds of sources and content are most useful and relevant, will be better prepared for secondary and university study. Although books still have an important part to play in the study of many subjects, online research skills are vital to the education of young people in the 21st century.

End_of_the_world_prisonAccording to the Institute for the Study of Civil Society in 2010, most people in custody do not have any educational qualifications: 52% of men, and 71% of women.

It could be argued that a lack of education is a precursor to committing a criminal offence, which would suggest that education in prison should be enshrined as a right, as a vital part of rehabilitation. Gov.uk states that prisoners have a right to ‘healthcare – including support for a mental health condition’. If prisons are to support the mental health of offenders, it could similarly be suggested that education should be a key part of that support. It is not possible for people to study for more advanced qualifications like A-Levels or degrees within prisons. However, if certain conditions are met, offenders can study for these qualifications via distance learning. The main issue for people engaging in distance learning from prison is the lack of internet access, which many would consider a privilege.

Education provides people with choices and enables them to get jobs that they enjoy, and for which they can be well compensated. When young people are failed by education providers, their options can narrow, and this can result in destructive behaviour, which can include engaging in criminal activity. If that does happen, education in prison should be considered vital: inmates should be given the chance to create new opportunities for themselves. Ex-offenders who have been successful at creating opportunities for work or further study will be more successful at becoming fulfilled members of society with a positive future.

Prisons have a duty of care for all offenders, and this care includes mental health. According to the Mental Health Network on behalf of the NHS, nearly half of new prisoners are considered susceptible to anxiety or depression. Both of these conditions can be alleviated by studying for qualifications. Although other courses of action may be necessary, education in prison can distract people from their anxiety, and give them something to focus on other than negative thoughts and feelings. This distraction can give inmates hope and an ability to look forward to the future.

For people in prison who are studying via distance learning, the lack of internet access can be a disadvantage. Part of the distance learning experience for most people is the online communication and support, as well as the ability to research course specific content via the internet. It could be argued that prisoners should not expect to have the right to internet access, though, even if it would enhance their learning experiences. However, prisons in the UK are rolling out a portal solely for use by inmates who are studying for qualifications. This portal has features similar to the internet, and is designed to support distance learning without extending potentially contentious privileges.

The tabloid media often reports on how ‘easy’ life is for people in prison, and bemoans any privileges awarded to offenders. However, education should not be considered a privilege. If people who have been convicted of crimes want to engage in learning, it should be encouraged and facilitated. Education can be a vital part of rehabilitation, allowing prisoners to reform their lives and create new opportunities.

525px-TeacherBritishMuseumThe Telegraph recently reported that the British government is planning to conduct a drive to recruit teachers from abroad, due to a national shortage. Government targets for the recruitment of trainee teachers have not been met, which suggests that it is difficult to make teaching an attractive career prospect. A perceived lack of discipline and cases of violence against them in the news might go some way to explaining why people are reluctant to become teachers, but there are other, more fundamental reasons as well – a lack of support and overwhelming workload, for example. Perhaps most pointedly of all, The Guardian reported that four out of every ten newly qualified teachers leave the profession within a year.

New teachers need a lot of support from their colleagues. They need to be able to ask questions, get advice, to learn how to maintain discipline in the classroom. This kind of support can be difficult for other teaching staff to provide, especially if they are dealing with large workloads of their own.
A school’s behaviour policy can have a substantial impact on the experiences of the newly qualified teacher. The policy must offer a clear code of behaviour and varying levels of sanctions to be applied in the event that the code is not followed. It should be communicated to all pupils and staff in ways that are meaningful and easy to understand. A well-structured senior management team with clearly allocated roles and responsibilities should enforce the school behaviour policy and be available to teachers for support when needed.

The aforementioned overwhelming workloads could also account for the teacher shortage. It is a common misconception that teachers have short days and long holidays. Most professionals in education spend many hours of their ‘free’ time creating lesson plans, developing resources, researching, and marking and evaluating the work of their pupils. In other industries, professionals are compensated handsomely for time spent working long hours. Teachers are paid relatively low wages in conjunction with the number of hours that they are required to work. This suggests that the government should develop ways of either lessening the workload of education providers, or ensuring that they are paid a reasonable rate for their work.

This is an issue that is not going to go away, and it will most likely continue to rise to prominence in the education sector, in the media and in parliament.

640px-Question_exclamation.svgThe obsession with exam results and statistics that comes around every year seems to me to be driven by the media; they do not need to report on it in the way that they do every year. It is always on the national news as well as the local news and most times I think to myself, ‘but this is not news.’ Unless there is a dramatic, and more importantly, unexpected change in the overall picture, then there is nothing to report.

My feelings as far as the media are concerned are that they like to look for someone to blame no matter what happens, and they appear disappointed if it is not a year to find culprits, but they will report anyway because next year they might be able to do some blaming. Even if there is a change for the better, they often seem to look for a negative if they can find one. I feel sorry for the students being exposed to this.

Of course, successive Governments and Ofsted have played a major part in creating this annual frenzy, through their punitive attitudes around performance and progress, but whether they change their approach or not, I feel that the media will carry on in the same way as it is now tradition.

Think on this: why don’t we hear the same stories about University students each year? Not important, not interesting? Perhaps it is not news.

512px-Wpm02_05Recently, the British government put forward a new drive, via the Department of Education, to get more 7-9 year olds to use their local libraries and “get into the library habit early.”

In an age when the majority of children have access to tablets, computers, smart phones and other mobile devices, games are always accessible and are frequently favoured over sitting down and reading a book.

With many libraries closing down due to a lack of funding, and many others having their opening hours cut to the extent that they are not open outside of school hours, geographical location and time could seriously prohibit the Education Secretary Nicky Morgan’s goal: “No matter where they live or what their background, every single child in this country deserves the opportunity to read, read widely and read well – it’s a simple matter of social justice.”

While Mrs Morgan’s aim to “make our young people the most literate in Europe” is laudable, the practicality of getting to a library or young people’s book club is not always great. Of course every child should have access to a library, as a love of books and reading increases vocabulary, the ability to spell well and general knowledge. It also, of course, widens the imagination.

Many libraries do continue to provide storytelling, singing and craft sessions for children of all ages, and the quality of children’s books on offer improves all the time, so if you have a local library, why not go and see what’s on offer?

However, if you are unable to get to a public library but love to read, there are ways you can still read more books without having to buy them.

1. Use your school library if it has one.

2. Start a book swap scheme with your friends.

3. Set up your own book club to share your books and talk about books you love.

Statistics consistently prove that children who are well read perform better at school in all subjects, not just English, and continue into Higher Education with far stronger grades than those who don’t. So what are you waiting for? Go and pick up a book!

640px-Question_exclamation.svgCurrently students apply to university by 15 January and are made provisional offers based on predicted grades. These provisional places given in the application process are based on the predicted grades, but fewer than 10% receive correct predictions for all their subjects. Ignoring this fact, exams start in late May, with results being published in mid-August. Those without a place (about 40,000 a year) apply through the clearing system for vacancies. The academic year then starts in late September or early October.

It has been proposed by UCAS that exams be brought forward by 15 days, starting in early May, and that results be published by early July, before term ends. As part of this, the marking process would be sped up, allowing students to make applications having received their results; the element of doubt as to whether or not you would be qualified to attend a particular university would be removed. Another consequence would be that no university should start their academic year until 8 October. Such a change would be the first major reform to the system since 1961.

All this is described as being necessary to avoid student anguish and the hit and miss nature of their telephoning universities to see if they can get a place, relying on hope as to whether they can get through or not. We have a system that is complex, which lacks transparency for many students, and is inefficient and frenzied at this time of the year.

I suspect that the reason this has come to the fore now is that the larger number of students in the system has created an even more frenzied and stressful time for the universities. The students just had to put up with it in the past. Now the universities are also faced with more competition for students, which must also be driven by money considerations, a bye product of the tuition fees system. This has developed into a farcical situation whereby universities are offering free lap tops and gym membership to students as sweeteners, resulting in students shopping around, asking, ‘what are you going to offer me when I can get such and such from this other university?’ I think the universities want to get away from this.

Practically, the change in dates should not be a problem for schools, but it may feel too tight a schedule for some subjects in some schools. Universities starting around 8th October is not much of a change, some do not start until then anyway. So you gain 2 weeks. The marking is going to be sped up. Ha, ha: How often have we heard of marking fiascoes in recent years, and why that was? If it was not due to political reasons then it was because of inadequate funding in the exam system. There are not enough full time staff running the exam boards, and many markers are also teaching in schools, so it is a pressured second job with a tight time schedule and limited training. This is not the best arrangement for success and yet it is planned to speed it up. Well, if nothing else changes, expect even more fiascoes.

I do not think these proposed changes will make life that much easier for the universities. Yes it will cut out the clearing system stress, but if they want to evaluate students properly and interview them, which ideally I think they should be doing for all prospective students, then they will still be pushed for time. This will also have an impact on holidays, as many university staff will not get one during the summer if they do the job properly after these changes.

So what are the alternatives? Sit A-levels after Christmas? That would make everything earlier in schools, which is not a good idea. Having a gap year and applying during the year, will give the universities a year without students. Neither of these will work.

However, the universities could give themselves more time by starting the academic year in November or later if need be. I do not see that this would be a problem because I do not see why the academic year needs to run from October to June, why not November to July? This would mean A-level results could be obtained in the same way as now, applications could then be made with no clearing system and the academic year for universities is shifted slightly. Problem solved.

Connect with Oxford Home Schooling