Page 9, 16th May 2008

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eat mus wai

Save the family holidays for outside term time, says Hugh David

SCHOOLBOARD

As we bask in our mini-heatwave or premature summer, depending on how you see it thoughts at the school gates inevitably turn to holidays. It's not just the sudden change from duffle coats and grey pinafores to the blazers, caps and short trousers that have overwhelmed St Peter's school playground in the last five days, it's also the looming question of what to do with the children in August that all this warm weather prompts. Hence, in those blessed six hours between the 9 am drop-off and the 3.15 pm pick-up of my sons, Gabriel and Bruno, I have been spending more time than is decent looking up flight times, dates and prices to escape to a warm beach. With them, of course. Don't put temptation in my way.

But, as every parent of school-age children will tell you, the cost suddenly soars as soon as term ends. It's another stealth tax on parenthood, imposed not this time by the government, but by travel companies and the much-vaunted market.

I suspect that Ed Balls has also been taking time out from running his quaintly named Department for Children, Schools and Families to plan a summer holiday with his own three children, Ellie, Joe and Maddy. And, like the rest of us, balking at paying the premium rates being demanded. Because this week he has been urging headteachers to be "flexible" over pupils missing lessons to go on family holidays. Let them go early, he seems to be saying, because it will be cheaper. An early example of the Labour Government listening to voters after the local election debacle?

Perhaps, but not listening to our esteemed head at St Peter's who has long had a zero-tolerance policy for parents straying outside the designated holidays. While my wallet has sympathy for the minister's plea, my head tells me our head is right. It is hard enough for teachen to deliver every twist and turn of the marathon that is now the national curriculum to a class of 30 children of varying abilities without a smattering of them forever being away, missing vital stages of the learning process and therefore holding up everyone else. It is also, our head points out, a concession demanded by largely middleclass parents or those with the money to contemplate foreign holidays (but, evidently, not quite enough money to pay for them at peak times). There are children in Gabriel and Bruno's classes who have never been to a beach, let alone Europe. That's the mix you get in an inner-city state primary. Hard, I know, for the likes of David Cameron, Boris Johnson and their Bullingdon Club pals to understand, despite their opportunistic siding with the poor over the issue of the 10p tax rate. But it is the responsibility of the state school head especially, you might argue, a Catholic head in a learning environment which embraces Gospel values of equality and justice to create as level a playing field as possible.

And so, despite the appeal of those deals that can only be purchased if you can travel before July 1 or after September 8, I am against Mr Balls, with our head, and with, it should be added, the junior education minister, Kevin Brennan, who did not back his boss's demand for "flexibility".

A small issue, perhaps, in the gamut of challenges that crop up every school day, but one that, I can't help feeling, reveals Mr Balls as out of touch with what state schools should be and are doing. The relationship between parents and head is not as in the private sector an essentially commercial transaction.

In independent schools parents pay for what they assume is a better education, and therefore feel justified in demanding flexibility in return for their money over the delivery of the service they are buying from the school. State schools religious or not work on another agenda altogether of mutual endeavour, sacrifice, collective responsibility and eschewing a culture of special favours in order to promote equality of opportunity.

Whick brings me to another story in the news this week the warning by Chris Parry, chief executive of the Independent Schools Council, that a "sectarian divide" exists between state and private sectors. He alleges that trainee teachers are bullied by lecturers not to join the independent sector on graduation. Since the state is paying most of the costs of the training, I can see the lecturers' point of view. Not in terms of bullying, but in terms of expectation. It is rather like the NHS investing for six years in training doctors only for them to hurry off to the BUPA hospital as soon as they have got their final degree. Market forces at their least attractive.

But I am sounding dogmatic. I have to admit that I have never quite understood what religious orders like the Benedictines, IBVMs and Jesuits are doing running posh private schools in this country. In fairness to the last two named, they have now largely pulled out of such activities, though they retain links with their former schools which thrive under lay leaderships. I know that the Gospel tells us how hard it is for the rich man to get to heaven, but is it really a vocation to help little Boris Johnsons to squeeze their overprivileged frames through the eye of a needle? In the abstract, you could make a case for it. But when our country and our world is so full of disadvantaged children living in absolute poverty, without a hope of a decent education, I find it impossible to understand how any religious order can justify its involvement in elitist schools.

Not a popular thing to say, I know, and perhaps I am missing something here. So please, you alumni of Ampleforth, Stonyhurst or St Mary's, Ascot, put me right through the mailbag either by post, via The Catholic Herald or by email, marked for the attention of Hugh David, to [email protected]




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