In praise of summer holidays…

A new reportfrom a leading think tank in Britain draws some intriguing conclusions about the future of education. First off, the authors warn that the modern obsession with academic learning in primary schools is backfiring, that pushing the three Rs earlier and earlier is failing to produce a generation of children who are more literate and numerate than before. Their prescription: promote overall well-being in the classroom and clear more space for kids to learn through play. “Improving results can’t just be about focussing on maths, English and science,” the report argues.”Schools need more support in developing healthy and happy young people.” Amen to that. Let’s just hope that the politicians take note. But the report contains a second conclusion that is harder to interpret: that the long school holiday should be abolished in favour of a series of two-week holidays spread across the year. The argument is that children forget too much of what they learn during the academic term when schools shut down for a long summer break. But is this really the case? I’ve read mixed research on the subject. Some argue that children need a long break from school in order not only to recharge their batteries but also to let the academic learning sink in. And what about the sheer joy of a long vacation? Surely that is the time when children can see a world in a grain of sand and hold infinity in the palm of their hand – it’s certainly hard to imaging William Blake campaigning for shorter holidays for the young. One of my happiest memories of childhood was finishing school at the end of June and knowing that I had two months of play and freedom ahead of me. Do we want to lose that? Especially when nations with very successful education systems (eg. Finland) allow their kids a long holiday in summer. If academic gains really are eroding during the warmer months in Britain, maybe the real reason is not that children are taking a break from school; maybe it’s that they are getting the wrong kind break. For many kids, the summer holiday is no longer a time to play freely, to roam the neighbourhood without adults butting in or to explore the world on their own terms; it’s just an extension of the rest of the year, a treadmill of structured and supervised activities. Perhaps that is where we are going wrong. Instead of abolishing the long summer holiday, we should be finding better ways to spend it…

A cure for vacationitis?

The aversion to taking a vacation has gone so far that big companies are now looking for ways to force their staff to take a break. A recent report in the New York Times reveals that PricewaterhouseCoopers has taken to closing down its entire US operation twice a year to ensure that its employees down tools. Everything stops at the well-known accounting firm for 10 days over Christmas and five days around the Fourth of July. During the year, the company also sends electronic reminders to staff who are failing to take enough vacation time. Posters depicting idle days away from the desk now hang in its New York office. One high-ranking member of the firm says that “we wanted to create an environment where people could walk away and not worry about missing a meeting, a conference call or 300 e-mails.” Not surprisingly, productivity is up since the new push for vacation.

And if PricewaterhouseCoopers can do it, then….

Slow vacation

We’ve just come back from the ultimate slow holiday – travelling round Holland by barge and bicycle. I can’t think of a better way to see a country. Pedalling through the countryside and villages, stopping to picnic or sightsee or join in a pick-up soccer game. Cycling offers the perfect speed, fast enough to cover lots of ground, slow enough to take in the details. In the evenings you can smell suppers cooking as you glide past the open kitchen windows. Our unorthodox tandem sparked more than one conversation with the locals. Holland is amazingly bike-friendly, with dedicated cycle paths all over the place, even in the cities. The Dutch cycle everywhere. In Amsterdam you see businessmen in smart suits pedalling home from work. Or elegant women in high-heels cycling off to meet friends for lunch. Even bad weather doesn’t put them off. If only the rest of the world would follow suit. Imagine if you could cycle round London without fear of being squashed by a bus or an SUV. No one in Holland wears a cycling helmet, by the way. Apart from the tourists.