Ho-ho-ho, let's deck those halls! Oh, no, let's not!

Two primary schools, two headteachers and two very different opinions about the best way to celebrate Christmas
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The Independent Online
the case for

'Laughter, games, dancing and sheer enjoyment for all'

Christmas starts here on 25 November. The last Saturday in the month brings the Christmas Fayre, the Christmas tree and the site agent's annual problem-solving task: how to get it to stand straight.

While still damp and smelling wonderful, it is overladen with 300 individual, lovingly crafted "decorations". Each child knows which belongs to him or her and exactly where it is.

The four-year-olds' bright eyes are filled with sheer happiness when the myriad coloured lights start flashing and chasing.

The school secretary casts aside her twinset and pearls to become Father Christmas's fairy, complete with tutu, wand and tiara. The Parent- Teacher Association cupboard is magically transformed into a fairy-tale grotto.

Parental generosity is overwhelming, the school heaves warmth and goodwill and the school library will benefit from pounds 500-worth of new books.

School decorations go up the following week, planned to complement the corridor display boards with their pantomime themes. The children gather in the hall for Christmas singing while the staff decorate the corridor with 600 (or is it 6,000?) hand-made mobiles for the children to delight in as they emerge. Mums, granddads, childminders are again brought in to be proudly shown their child's contribution.

The serious business of productions gets into full swing. Tea-towels are out this year, for the cast of thousands of Bethlehem people has had a change of venue: it is Russian peasants and Baboushka. The reception class will perform the traditional nativity but, not wishing to disappoint, there are six Marys, six Josephs, six Gabriels, etc ... is it any wonder the children become confused? "No, no, it isn't Mary and Josie, even though they are both wearing dresses."

The biggest problem is the allocation of tickets for performances - they are like gold, available only on the black market. Of course, everyone wants to come to share in the excitement of the evening performance: the spotlights, the make-up, the microphone, the shiny happy faces. Parents ooze with pride and the children rise to the occasion, it is a privilege to be there.

Party day: 19 December, a fashion parade of shiny shoes, bright ribbons, grunge, designer, smart, casual - it is all there: 300 partying in the hall. The PTA will never be allowed to forget the year each child was given a cracker with a whistle in it. But ssshh ... Can you hear the bells? The magic of Father Christmas arriving, silence as we listen, all believing, all waiting in anticipation. Laughter, games, dancing and sheer exhaustion for everyone.

We always seem to choose the coldest night for carol singing in the community. Lanterns come out, gloves, scarves and boots. A wide choice of songs is selected to please the youngest and the traditionalists. An hour is long enough and then it is back to school for coffee and mince pies. Charities benefit from this annual activity.

The last day of term arrives. We finish on a high with the annual talent show. Magicians, musicians, ventriloquists, dancers, comedians, impersonations and the staff contribution. The children are bemused. Everyone is rewarded for their contribution by a patient, generous and appreciative audience.

Now it is late on 20 December and Christmas in school is over. The children have gone home, loaded down with hand-made cards, calendars, presents, hats and their own carefully retrieved tree and corridor decorations. The reception class almost burst with pride as they carried the individual Christmas cakes they had made and decorated.

It was great; the sheer pleasure and happiness of the school community is reflected in the warm wishes that are exchanged. It was fun, fun for everyone. And an education, too.

CHRIS TAYLOR

The writer is headteacher at Hills Lower School, Bedford.

the case against

'In our school I've cut Christmas down to size'

W hat goes on for ever, costs a fortune and drives everyone barmy? Yes, headteacher is a good try, but Christmas at school is an even better answer. It is a national disgrace that schools have, in the past, squandered so much time, money and energy in dubious Christmas celebrations.

When they finally get round to making me Prime Minister, my first act of office will be to impose a law restraining Christmas to RE and Collective Acts of Worship except for the very last day of the autumn term, when the children could have a wonderful day.

I am no Scrooge; no one was more hooked than me. I was a 12-month-a- year man. Christmas started at the January sales; not for me the hunt for the bargain sports coat and the turquoise tie, my quest was for the last of the paper streamers, the odds and ends of tree decorations and scrounging the bins for discarded life-size cardboard Santas.

Snowy evenings and weekends were spent sorting used Christmas cards to serve as an inspiration for decoration on a classroom wall or sorting into class sets for calendar mounts. The three kings and sleigh-bell music were safely on tape by early summer. By sports day the party entertainer was booked and dates for nativity, carol service and the PRODUCTION marked boldly on the staffroom notice board.

Early September would see the Christmas Fair production line working flat out. In the third week of November the rickety, tall steps would be dusted off and dragged from the boiler room and all would be ready for transforming hall, corridors and classrooms into a magical winter wonderland. At December's first dawn, the metamorphosis would be complete.

In the weeks leading up to Christmas it was not just the school's appearance that changed - people changed, too. Children became over-excited monsters as we echoed the hype of the shopping precinct and the TV commercials. The staff became more and more tired and the curriculum ground almost to a stop.

The climax was the children's party - a ritual competition in bad manners and greed, where children stuffed themselves with the maximum amount of food in the minimum amount of time. The anti-climax staff "do" was not quite a wake but more of a "keep awake" session. At the end of the longest term in the school year, being jolly was the last thing on people's minds.

Does it all sound depressingly familiar? Things seemed so bad that our classroom registers contained warnings that Christmas could damage your health - particularly your sanity. It was difficult to decide which was worse, the prospect before retirement of five more Ofsted inspections or 16 school Christmases.

Perhaps the best thing that can be said for the national curriculum is that it forced all of us in schools seriously to review our use of time. There was too much to do and too little time in which to do it. Christmas, for most, was an obvious soft target and in our school I have had a good go at cutting it down to size.

I am all for celebration and giving children an opportunity to perform, but those pale imitations of pantos were often tacky and tasteless, and classrooms were often places where costly materials were thoughtlessly and rapidly processed into colourful trash. Christmas activities had grown incrementally, and there was little sense of purpose in much of what we were doing. The national curriculum forced us to be economical with time and to drive for quality rather than quantity. There was a bonus, as we no longer needed to buy such vast quantities of glitter dust, gold and silver spray paint and all the other twinklies that had been so essential to Christmas craft.

We were expecting a backlash from parents, but they seemed relieved that we had reduced our demands on their time; this was particularly so with parents who had children in more than one school. The enthusiasm of even the most supportive parent flags when morally obliged to support, in quick succession, several school concerts, nativity plays and carol services.

We have at last arrived at a reasonable and justifiable expenditure of both time and resources. Christmas preparation and activities are strictly confined to December. We do have decorations up, we do have Christmas productions. I have my customers to satisfy: children, parents and staff.

But in Ofsted-speak we, like many schools, by cutting out the excesses of Christmas, have reached a situation where we are providing much better value for money.

The catalyst for change was the overloaded national curriculum. The arrival of the Dearing Report and the 20 per cent discretionary time provides us all with the chance to slip back into our old wicked ways.

But it would be madness to squander this reclaimed time on Christmas nonsense. My desk is littered with Christmas and festival crafts catalogues from educational suppliers with some addressed to "The teacher in charge of Christmas Fun" filled with "a multitude of ideas and products to make Christmas time more exciting". They can stuff the turkey with their extra excitement. Leave the party hats in the cupboard for just a few more days and keep on with the real teaching and teaming.

Merry Christmas.

MIKE SULLIVAN

The writer is headteacher of Busill Jones County Primary School in Bloxwich, near Walsall, West Midlands.

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