My son’s school is keeping the spirit of Dotheboys Hall alive

Formal exercises are what you are meant to do at school

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The Independent Online

Yeah! Or as today’s schoolchildren would say: yay! It is – for many, the rest may have to wait a few more days – that Alice Cooper moment again... School’s out for summer. The papers are wailing about Black Saturday and tailbacks on the M4, but those on the backseats are most certainly not.

My lot have been counting down the days. Thanks to an early Easter, this term seems to have gone on for an eternity, with its plethora of exams, trips, plays, concerts and sports days. School shirts have been signed, eternal friendship vows made and tears shed. Six weeks of doing absolutely nothing now stretch ahead. Could there be anything nicer?

But even as I realise I can now turn off the 6.30 alarm and forgo the quotidian nightmare of where to find something for a nutritional packed lunch, what is this fresh horror? My youngest child waves a school letter in my face. It is from his primary school’s assistant head. It starts in the usual way: “Everyone is looking forward to a well deserved break…” But then: “Children often come back to school in September with rusty basic skills… we have great online platforms to help children keep their basic skills in shape… a little practise [sic] every day, say 15 to 30 minutes… would help ensure your child returned [sic] to school… to enjoy learning and improving…”

What? I’ve only just started to relish the idea of not making a jam sandwich every day. (I know, I know.) Does he really expect me to a) take my computer to Cornwall and then b) daily drag my children towards it, whence they will be drilled for 30 minutes by an “online learning platform”, thus helping to “secure and improve” their maths?

This is before, of course, they are bodily strapped into chairs to catch up on their Summer Reading Course (in which they are supposed to read a book a week, and have it ticked off by someone in September). Following which there is the Summer Tennis course, rounding up the day with Twilight German. For yes, another child in my household has also had a school letter, this time advising him to work through not one, but two German textbooks before September.

Of course, I am as happy as any other parent that my children should have “secure and improved” maths, language and literacy skills. Frankly, however, I think formal exercises designed to improve “number skills”, grammar and spelling are what you are meant to do at school. The summer holidays were not invented to give children a spate of home learning. They were invented so children could help parents bring the harvest in. Now that there is no call for minors to be working on farms, the holidays are still just as valuable – as time to do absolutely bugger all.

They are not opportunities for some Stakhanovite round-the-year system. Dickens satirised such educational institutions with their “No Holidays” policy in Nicholas Nickleby, and one might have hoped that was the end of it. Sadly, however, the spirit of Dotheboys Hall still lingers on.

Frankly, if schools feel so uneasy about a pupil’s grasp of the essentials, and worry that they are so tenuous that they might ebb away over six weeks, then may I politely suggest that they stop writing guilt-inducing letters to parents already on their knees thanks to organising (and funding) piano, ballet, tennis, language and, er, ice hockey lessons, and perhaps ensure those basics are drummed in a bit more.

For the past two weeks, according to him, my youngest son has been having a lovely time, sitting in his Year 5 classroom “watching films”, because clearly the staff are as exhausted as he is. This is fine, but please do not then land teaching responsibility on the handy, 24/7 whammy of the internet and willing parents.

This is not some Swallows and Amazons-style nostalgia-inspired rant for children to go out catching tadpoles for six weeks; if left to their own devices, my children will charge them up and play on them. But it is a plea to allow children to spend six weeks messing about. If only the assistant head had suggested that, over the next 42 days, my children could beef up their geometry literacy and maths via a combination of Minecraft, Minions and Monopoly. Then I would have felt we were all singing from the same online learning platform.

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