Loaded, primed and ready for the holidays

End-of-year activities send children into an adrenalin-fuelled frenzy that is followed by disappointment
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The Independent Online
It's the first week of the school holidays and the children are spinning like tops. What now? they cry. What next? Who's coming? What are we doing this afternoon? Tomorrow? At the weekend?

Nothing seems to satisfy. In just a few days we gallop through most of the treats saved up for the holidays. We go to the beach, play crazy golf, have their friends to stay, pick strawberries, spend a day in London - and still their appetite for stimulation and distraction is undiminished. Faced with a gap in the schedule they roam aimlessly from room to room, snappish and bored.

What they need is cold turkey - a spell of absolute quiet during which they will be forced to re-centre their scattered energies and re-discover how to amuse themselves. But I dread the moment because what we're talking here are junior junkies, adrenalin heads, still running on the excitement of the end of term, and rehab is never a painless process for anyone concerned.

In my day, the end of the school year meant a lugubrious farewell assembly and a cup of orange squash. These days it's concerts, plays, swimming galas, sports days, parent evenings, school fairs, picnics, camps, outings and class parties.

For weeks pupils seem to live on the pressures of performance and the rush of applause. They hurtle from one big event to the next, their emotions twanging from excitement, their bodies a-quiver with the sugar of successive celebrations.

Then - quite suddenly - it's over. It's the holidays. But like cartoon characters being chased off a cliff, they can't stop running even though there's only empty space below. And when they finally fall to earth, it's the poor parents who are standing underneath.

Not all schools are as bad. Some still manage to wind down to the holidays, rather than wind up. But these days more and more seem to send children home in a state of humming over-excitement.

Of course the end of the year is a special time when achievements should be celebrated and graduations marked. But some of these festivities seem to have escalated so wildly that maybe schools need to think again about exactly what they are doing, and why.

I know of one nursery school where the class treat was an outing to have lunch at McDonald's, and of a primary school where, a teacher told me, the atmosphere was so much 'my class party is better than yours' that each year more and more children were reduced to sobbing incoherence among the rising tide of doughnuts and balloons.

What possible educational (or nutritional) value can there be in occasions like these? And how much precious teaching time is lost in the build-up to, and aftermath of, such end-of-year outings and celebrations?

One shouldn't be too Mother Grundy-ish about this. As a country we're remarkably short on festivities of any kind, and it's good that schools are more celebratory places than they used to be. And it's obvious, too, that if you're going to stage a worthwhile concert or play then the adrenalin of production is bound to be followed by a let-down afterwards.

But does it all have to break over the children in such an overwhelming rush?

Maybe concerts and drama productions should be spread more evenly through the school year, as should fund-raisers and teacher-parent evenings. And shouldn't the sports department check with the music department to make sure their big events don't follow pell-mell, one after the other? And maybe the class treats and outings and parties that now seem to be proliferating, especially in primary schools, need to be pruned back.

After all, for younger children a party is what you tell them it is, and most are perfectly happy with a bunch of grapes on a paper plate and a few classroom games.

But perhaps what we really need is a radical rethink of the whole school schedule.

Three years ago I visited a school in inner-city Chicago where the three- term year had been thrown out, in favour of four shorter ones, and despite various teething problems (the aroma of non-air-conditioned classrooms in high summer) both teachers and parents were adamant that they never wanted to return to the old ways.

The teachers were happy because they no longer had to spend September going over all the work that the students had forgotten during the long vacation, while the parents loved it because they no longer had to worry about leaving their children to hang out on the mean streets all summer.

Because our traditional school year was designed for a world that has long vanished.

In the past children needed to be free in the summer to work on the harvest, but now it's the parents who have to work, while the children are left hanging around idle, or parked with minders, or booked on expensive activity holidays, or put down for play schemes of often dubious quality.

In fact "coping" with the holidays has become a big challenge of modern parenthood, either because of the adults' working schedules, or the children's own horror at the thought of weeks of doing nothing but hang around the house. (Long gone are the days when they could safely roam further afield).

So who, exactly, benefits from the frantic end-of-year rush, followed by the long wastes of the summer holiday? Or would a more measured school year be better suited to today? More school work would get done; teachers would be less pole-axed by exhaustion come July; and working parents would find it easier to make arrangements to cover the four short breaks.

This idea has been kicking around in educational circles for many years without any conclusions being reached or action taken, but maybe it's time for parents to read up on the issues and join the debate.

Meanwhile back here at home, a long day of water therapy at the swimming pool has done much to slow the spinning tops. At last, it seems, we can settle down and start to enjoy the holidays.