Holidays: how are they best thought about and prepared for? As a general rule, I prefer holidays to term time, and have noticed that all my colleagues and pupils do too. So I’ve been giving the matter some thought. Every school year has a pattern to it. Holidays are part of that pattern. Parents think deeply about the rhythms of term, and how to adapt to, or improve them. Holiday rhythms are a more subtle proposal.
First, parents need to understand the rhythms of term, as every Deputy Head has to do when setting term dates. Every school year is a Boat Race, and the aim is to make sure that the crew makes it past the finishing line at Mortlake with maximum honours. There are times (coming up to Hammersmith Bridge or getting ready for the senior school Pre-Test) when the crew will need to put in a spurt. There are times when they just need to dig in and keep the regular rhythm going (that's Chiswick Eyot for Boat Race aficionados and the middle of Year 8 for those approaching Common Entrance). There are times when the cox gets a view of Mortlake and everyone needs to turn on the sprint – that’s the weeks just before the Common Entrance gets going. Parents need to recognise those rhythms and then devise for the holidays some rhythms of their own.
That task involves first some simple arithmetic. Schools in the maintained sector usually work 195 days. Schools in the independent sector usually work 15 or so less. This may or may not say something about how much work one can actually get out of pupils in July; it certainly says something about how useful holiday time can be. Holidays are a bit like music. Yes, there are the notes (the quavers the crotchets, the minims – all at their different pitches) that make up the melody: but what gives that melody its elegance, poise and place are the rests, the breathing points, the judiciously deployed portamento. So the first thing to do when working out the timetable for a holiday is to ensure that it involves plenty of rest.
Holidays aren’t there for academic study, for concentrating on school-work or sitting down at a desk and writing or word processing things. To be sure, a little bit of cultural sightseeing, a lot of literary or historical reading, or a good bit of music practice can certainly be done. But the emphasis should always be on something different from term time – something that the pressure of term time makes it difficult to accomplish. And, save at critical times of academic pressure, the absence of formal academic study is the chief thing to aim for.
Getting the balance right is important of course. I have a friend who ran Brittany Ferries for many years. We shared together a wonderful story of a family of two parents and one child walking along the D-Day beaches in Normandy. Another family were building an enormous sandcastle, and the first child left walking along the beach to ask if he could come and help. 'What kind of castle are you building?' he asked. 'Is it a motte and bailey castle?' The castle diggers looked flummoxed. 'We don’t really know what that is,' the father replied, with some embarrassment. 'Oh', said the prospective digger, 'that’s rather odd. My parents and I have been looking at all the motte and bailey castles we can over the last three weeks. There are some really great ones around here.'
The point is getting the balance right. On the one hand that young man was getting tremendous support for what one hopes were his interests; and on the other, one fears that his parents may have risked turning him into something of an eccentric. That same friend reported to me that Brittany Ferries notice parental patterns which year by year, as the children get older, creep down from the gentleness of Brittany and the Côte d'Opale to the heady surf, and headier après surf, of Biarritz. Apparently, that gradual journey south takes about 10 to 15 years in most cases, by which time adolescent young man and adolescent young woman are either unwilling to go on parental holidays any longer, or, alternatively, ready to brave the nightclubs of Spain on their own. Where else do independent school parents choose for their holidays? Perhaps those well-known destinations in Devon, Cornwall or Norfolk? Not if you want to take a break from the school friends, I suggest.
Pulling those horns in? No problem. Everyone agrees that a prime purpose of holiday should be sleep, and a secondary purpose plenty of recreational reading. Neither is a major budget item. My parents had some eccentric friends who refused to holiday abroad – or even anywhere more than a hundred miles from their home, which was in London. Often they stayed at home and did day trips taking in, by public transport, extraordinary amounts of culture, and demonstrating that London can be a pretty attractive Oyster.
And finally a very school-masterly ending. Apologies. There is one unbreakable rule. It won’t be popular to state it, but my goodness I can promise you it makes sense. Don’t ever take that holiday in term time. After all, there are already 15 fewer days in the school year, during which cheaper holiday tariffs are likely to apply, and prep school parents are already paying for an education from which they then strangely withdraw. The effect in the classroom is of resent, not just from teachers but from classmates also. So keep term as term and holiday as holiday, and long may the two remain as different as possible.