Summer term: and the teaching is not easy

It never fails to depress me just how much curriculum time goes out of the window in the second half of the summer term. This yearly saga is not simply the inevitable result of the students (not to mention the staff) being frankly desperate to begin their summer holidays; the atmosphere is facilitated – even promoted – by our school systems and by the people who organise them. Boy, do we make life difficult for ourselves in the summer term.

The run-down to the summer holiday has always been punctuated by events that disrupt the calendar. Year 10 Work Experience, that hilarious misnomer “curriculum week”, sports day, reward events and summer camps of various guises; one of my clients talked about an ominous-sounding “bush week” – something I am very glad to say I have never been forced to endure in my career. To some extent, these events in themselves send a message to students that we’re in summer festival mode and it’s time to wind down. Yet some of them (perhaps – dare I say it – even the bush week) have unquestionable value and I acknowledge that they have to happen sometime. So why not now?

One of the things I have thought about the most in my final year at the chalkface is the messaging we send out to our students: not just in what we say but in what we do. There is much talk about how important it is to model good behaviour, to show students what “good” looks like by demonstrating excellence, good manners and commitment at all times. So what message are we sending them, do we think, when things start winding down three weeks prior to the end of term? Three weeks is around 8% of the curriculum time we have with them. That’s 8% of curriculum time that is so disrupted that the only way to manage it as a classroom teacher is basically to write it off; I’ve always said that if you haven’t finished the overwhelming majority of what you need to teach by May half term then you’re going to struggle to finish it at all, as the second half of the summer term is a total bun-fight. My worry, however, is that this messaging leads to one inevitable conclusion for our students: that the curriculum doesn’t really matter that much after all.

Beyond the realities of curriculum time, we also create quite a problem for ourselves when it comes to behaviour. Children thrive on routines and boundaries and when those routines and boundaries become disrupted then behaviour gets worse. We all know this. Yet in some schools, just one day’s hot weather apparently means that students can’t possibly wear their (summer) uniform and are instead allowed to attend school in their PE kit – a concession that puzzles me given that at least one of the purposes of school is to prepare them for adult working life; last time I checked, most employers don’t allow their workforce to come into the office in a pair of loose-fitting boxers just because the thermometer has hit 30 degrees for a day or two. By all means, encourage students to remove blazers, loosen ties, remove garters or adjust whatever other crazy form of attire the school has chosen as its marker; this would happen in most adult settings – even the most formal – in extreme weather conditions. However, if schools choose to have a uniform (and most schools do) then the messaging has to be that the wearing of that uniform not only matters but matters a great deal. Why? Because otherwise the subliminal message that you’re sending out is this: we have rules, but they don’t always get enforced and so in the grand scheme of things they don’t actually matter.

Incidentally, uniform and how it is worn is something I have completely changed my mind about over the years. When I first entered the profession I saw no no reason whatsoever to sanction students for not tucking in their shirts or doing up their ties. “What does it matter?” I thought. “I want them to be thinking about the learning, not fussing about their clothes.” Correcting a child’s uniform seemed to me to be part of the gradgrindian system that I – a liberal educationalist- was dead set against. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. I now believe that if we are in the business of preparing young people for all walks of life then that applies to everything: the fact that they may have to dress and act a certain way in certain circumstances, the fact that institutions have rules that they will be expected to respect if they want to be part that institution (their choice either way – that’s part of the gift we impart to them). Beyond this, and perhaps even more crucially, it simply isn’t fair to expect children to understand that adults mean what they say but only in certain circumstances; that some rules matter but others don’t; that I mean what I say when I tell students not to talk over each other, or not to run in the corridors, but not when I ask them to correct their uniform. My view would be that if you can’t get on board with being strict on uniform then get rid of it.

This final summer in school has felt like the hardest. Schools have been under immense pressure to cram in all the activities that our students have missed out on in the last couple of years. We feel like we owe them and in many ways I believe that we do. Society owes a great debt to its youth, whose lives have been curtailed and controlled to a degree that – in any normal circumstances – we would consider completely unacceptable. And not only that, they have been curtailed for the sake of the oldest and most vulnerable members of society. In all honesty I have been truly stunned at how they have taken it with such extraordinary good grace: we all owe them a great deal of gratitude. Yet – in my view – that debt is not paid by pandering to their every whim and by punching yet more holes in a curriculum that has already been eviscerated. Indeed no. We offer them that payback by being our most consistent, most loving, most insistent best. By believing that they can handle it.

Show me your best is now my mantra: for I believe that we can and should expect more of our young people: that they can do so much better than most adults expect them to do.