School holidays: Gove is doubly wrong

Last week, the Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove made a speech saying that school hours and holiday plans were based on our agricultural past and that we were being left behind by the work ethic of the East Asian nations who had longer school days and shorter holidays.

Colleagues in teaching may be shocked to hear this, but Mr Gove is wrong on both counts.

Liberal England the TES team up to prove that the pattern of school holidays is not derived from our agrarian heritage.

In fact, schools took their holiday plan from… politicians! In the 1800s, longer summer holidays became a feature of parliament and the courts, and at the time, many in education were the sons of lawyers and politicians so it suited all concerned for the holidays to match.

The TES reports parents have been kvetching about the length of school holidays and how teachers have it easy, since at least the 1890s:

A letter to the Daily News in 1892 noted: “Little by little, the holidays at most of our schools have increased from an average of eight weeks in the year to something like 14. This gradual change has been entirely in the interest of the masters, for the school fees have not decreased in corresponding ratio.”

Another correspondent wrote: “I am convinced young boys, especially those with no real love of learning, lose in the long holidays much of the knowledge and discipline received in the short terms.”

That last complaint from 1892 is the rationale behind Nottingham city’s attempt to introduce a five term year with shorter summer holidays.

Just as Gove is wrong about the reason for school holidays, he is also wrong about the comparison between the English education system and East Asia. A blog post on the Local Schools Network crunches the data available and concludes:

English pupils spend more hours in the classroom than those in Korea and Japan. They spend about the same as those in Singapore, less than in Hong Kong and Shanghai (although pupils in Shanghai get a longer lunch break and more holidays which offset the extra hours).

Indeed, as a commenter later points out, most of the nations that beat the UK in the PISA rankings have less contact time with students than we do.

Of course this latest is just one pronouncement on which Gove is clearly, factually wrong.

Other interesting thought experiments teachers have been trying out on Twitter this week: if performance related pay for teachers is the answer for school improvement, why isn’t it the answer for secretaries of state? If parents are to determine teachers’ pay, perhaps teachers should determine Michael Gove’s remuneration package? And more generally, perhaps constituents should set MPs’ salaries.