School's out for the summer - but not for much longer

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`No more English, no more French; no more sitting on the old school bench." That's what we used to chant on the last day of the summer term when I was young, as we celebrated the arrival of an annual holiday that seemed so long that its end was beyond the horizon of our imagination. We could simply forget about school for as much time as we could foresee. We were, we felt, free. Long, lazy or busy days lay ahead. How we spent them was up to us. There'd be some growing up to be done: six weeks later, we'd be more than six weeks older - but we didn't know that then, and it certainly didn't worry us. School was, as a later song put it, out for summer.

If there are any children viewing a similar prospect over the next few weeks, they had better make the most of it. The traditional summer break and three-term year are under attack. The idea that anyone should be allowed to forget for a moment (let alone a season) that school is the only thing that matters in life is anathema to a leadership that declares that "learning targets" should be set for children of three. In any case, it's a long time since school holidays have offered much real respite from the pressures of a suffocating system that will no more let children have time to be children than it will let parents have time to be their parents.

New Labour has so over-wound its educational clockwork monkey that the sound of its hollow tin drum reverberates endlessly, through evenings, weekends, and what are supposed to be breaks from school. Fathers, mothers and children find it harder and harder to get away together for a holiday in which schoolwork is left behind without any of them feeling guilty, anxious, or inadequate. Five-year-olds are expected to keep holiday diaries, and six-, 10-, and 13-year-olds to revise for tests which serve only to satisfy the paper monster's appetite for statistics, but which everyone is conned into thinking are important. After that, it's exams that do matter, and dummy runs for them, all the way to the bank - to borrow the fees, that is, for the tertiary education that the Government has tricked us into thinking that everybody needs, and everybody must pay for.

Moreover, this Government is seriously considering taking away altogether the single most important holiday in a child's life: the growing-up summer which marks the rite of passage between primary and secondary school. That time would be better spent, according to the soulless experts whose sterile exhalations fill their smoke-free committee rooms, in "preparatory" classes for their senior schools, so that they can "hit the ground running". Well, I know which way I'd want any child of mine to run if he were bundled towards a hothouse school Portakabin on a summer's day in his 12th year.

There might have been some argument for encouraging those 11-year-olds who were judged to be "behind" in literacy and numeracy (as we now must call reading and writing) to attend such summer schools, as they did last year, but the plans now being considered are for everyone else - including the brightest - to attend, too, so that they can be "assessed in preparation for their secondary schooling".

"Whoever invented this," said the general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, "is trying to drive teachers and children into an early nervous breakdown. Children can't be expected to work non-stop throughout the year."

Oh yes they can, say the Government's actions. And the results? Children as young as six have been found to be suffering from classic symptoms of anxiety, stress, and depression as a result of having to endure the Government's compulsory tests. School now dominates far too much of the lives not just of children but also of their parents. Why else would there be a flourishing market for study aids aimed at helping them to get their children through the keystage tests they take aged six or seven? What next? "Baby's Bumper Baseline Book", perhaps? "Targets for Tinies"? Or maybe an enterprising publishing company will have the foresight to develop those souvenir snapshot albums into which an infant's first lock of cut hair can be pasted, and the date of its first word recorded. It must surely be easy enough to produce tear-out interleaved carbon pages which could be signed as a true record by the health visitor before being formally deposited in the local nursery school's filing cabinet - as the coursework element of baseline testing, perhaps.

Enough. It is no more true that all problems can be solved by education, or that children can never have too much of it, than that parents have a duty to be obedient participants in its ruthless line-management. On the issue of holidays, at least, some mothers and fathers have stood up for themselves. Their approval, and that of all others with a direct interest in local schools, was sought by East Sussex County Council for its plan to move to a five-term year with a four-week summer vacation in the biggest consultation exercise they had ever carried out. Their scheme was expected to break the log-jam of national resistance to such a move, and had been spoken of from the start as a fait accompli. Yet 73 per cent voted against it. The council has been forced to shelve its plans - if only for a year. But the log-jam will inevitably be broken sooner or later by another local authority somewhere, and probably less democratically.

The attack upon the summer holiday is just one indication of our leaders' obsessive drive to squeeze our children until their educational pips squeak. And that obsession with education is, at heart, an obsession with control. "Give us the child for eight years," said Lenin to the Moscow Commissars of Education, "and it will be a Bolshevik for ever." Our request to our own contemporary commissars should be equally direct: give us our kids back; or at least, give them - and us - a break.