April come she will – on what basis?
As soon as I opened my eyes to the sound of Good Morning Scotland on the radio alarm on Friday, I was aware of the date. GMS have perpetrated many April Fool stunts over the years, a lot of them sublimely silly and effective, so I was tuned in for anything likely.
I thought I’d spotted it when a spokesperson for the Scottish Parent Teacher Council stated, quite clearly: “Well, April is just going to be a write off for families.”
I wondered what could be causing this cataclysmic prediction.
It turned out that, because of various holidays, Bank Holidays and Royal Weddings, school pupils in Scotland would be at school for only 19 days in April. The rest of the time – and the apparent reason for family ‘write off’ – would be spent at home, in the bosom of the family. Or not.
I kept on waiting for a pay off line, but there wasn’t one. So it’s official – time spent with the family causes a month to be ‘written off’. What a bizarre view of the world!
Of course, the point being made was that this necessitated extraordinary child care arrangements and was a cause of additional expense and inconvenience for many families – most likely those who find the economic going tough in the general way of things, without this added pressure.
However, the sentiment does point to a strange approach to family and childcare in this country. The Scottish school year covers 190 days, ten days more than the European and American average. If you take weekends out of the equation, this means there are just about ten weeks in the year – less than a fifth – when children are at home – or to put it another way – their parents’ responsibility during the day.
For all that, there is a consistent cry for a longer school year and fewer holidays. The question has to be asked: to what effect?
In Asia and the Middle East, admittedly different cultures, the school year is longer – between 210 and 230 days. Schools in those countries achieve some excellent results – but at a price. Empirical learning is successful under those conditions but imaginative learning and the resultant creativity is sadly lacking. It is for that reason that, while the far east may create the computer hardware needed for games and the like, it is Europe, including Scotland, that largely provides the creative input for the games software and animations.
Whilst some parents in this country labour under the illusion that schools are there to provide childcare, rather than education, many more suffer under a system that seems to encourage both partners to work without providing the infrastructure to make it feasible or conducive to family life.
If we look at other countries to assess alternative approaches, we see that, even short of the Scandinavian model which invests huge amounts of its taxes on family friendly strategies, a country like France views education and the family in an entirely different manner.
For example, when deploying teaching staff, the French take into account the number of children in a family and their ages, as a guide to how far it is reasonable to expect a teacher to travel to work. In addition, child care is subsidised, so that, while UK families pay around 33% of their income on childcare, the average in France is 11% and the OECD average 13%.
As in the USA, occupying young people during the holidays does not seem to be a problem. Les Colonies de vacances operate universally in France and provide activities for school pupils from 4-18. They can be sport or more academically based, are a superb opportunity for youngsters to meet new friends, and, importantly, to put into practice some of the theoretical information they may have learned during the school year. For older students, the summer job opportunities provided by these initiatives are invaluable – personally and often professionally.
Furthermore, it is impossible to travel any distance in France without becoming aware that virtually every municipalité has a local sports complex, publicly owned, with multi sport facilities and subsidised clubs for local youngsters to join.
Of course, all of this represents not only a bigger commitment to family life, but also a bigger spend on that philosophy. However, it is debatable whether the cost of such family centred initiatives weighs in at more than the cost of social care, vandalism repair, fighting alcoholic misbehaviour and repeated campaigns to ‘bring back family values’ or ‘tackle youth disaffection’.
The majority of families want time together and the chance to develop as a unit of mutual support; statistics show that the countries where this is achieved have better educational results, across the board, fewer problems with youth offending, and a higher level of social responsibility amongst the middle aged as well as the young. I’m not sure you could achieve similar results by increasing the school year and lessening the already restricted opportunities for young people to try out what they learn in the classroom and operate through their own motivation rather than through a daily timetable.
While the Curriculum for Excellence recognises the importance of learning through writing, making, saying and doing we need to give pupils the space to exercise these skills on their own initiative; if they are to become successful learners, effective contributors, confident individuals and responsible citizens, again as the curriculum for Excellence promotes, it is surely not too much to expect that a fifth of the year should be organised so that they are outwith the direct control of their teachers, and able to operate within their families?
The social history of the past century has been one of great progress, particularly in the attempt to abolish poverty, improve working conditions, extend access to education and provide more choice for all. Sadly, it sometimes seems that, just as we got within sight of these goals, we took our eye off the ball and replaced our aims with a general need to ‘have it all’. Self evidently we have not achieved that: too many still live in poverty in our country, education and health provision is still far too patchy, young people are increasingly marginalised and, bizarrely, given the cause of the financial crash, we appear to be governed by those who believe the state should be responsible for nothing and social progress should be guided by devil take the hindmost.
How ironic that we spend a century trecking away from infant mortality, from children down mines, up chimneys, and abused in factories and mills – and then face suggestions that they should be retained in school for longer and longer each year.
This April may well be a ‘write off’ for some families – but the cause of that, emphatically, is not to do with the time they are at home rather than in school. A nation that fails to value its young is heading for disaster – maybe we should be looking for a new slogan in our political manifestos in the run up to May 5th.
How about: Put Children First?