Half term is a mysterious thing: all schools have one, yet I
have never heard anyone explain what it is for. In such circumstances, it is
more than likely that misconceptions have grown up, and even that half term is
one of those accidents of history that we would use differently if we invented
it now, if indeed we would do so at all.
There seem to me – and this is a personal view, after all –
that there are three things that half term is definitely for, and three things
which half term is sometimes seen to be, implicitly or explicitly, which it is
First, half term is a part of the rhythm of learning:
activity followed by reflection. Schools embed into their routines the
essential nature of improving cognition by term times and holidays. We
after all, have 48 weeks of 4 days of school each year; it might even be
easier for parents to
organise childcare that way. The remaining weeks – two at Christmas and
two in the summer, would, if such a pattern were adopted, be
like the factory shutdown periods that provide the only holidays for
(still). The activity of term followed by the reflection of the
however, builds in to the cycle of learning cognition, followed by
While this pair of activities is vital, and this is widely known, the
structuring and highlighting of metacognitive opportunities (the reason
Oxford and Cambridge have such long holidays) is an opportunity most
simply allow to pass by.
Secondly, half term is a chance for the settling and sorting of
memories and skills. It is a chance for mental pruning to take place, for a
fresh start to come more often and for a student to lay down their failures and
have a sense of perspective renewed as they return to school.
Thirdly, half term provides a brief interlude in the
hurly-burly of term time busyness for students to extend or enrich studies with
self directed work. Every child should make sure that, during a half term,
- read a book;
- read a newspaper;
- listen to a whole news bulletin;
- spend half an hour thinking about one of their
school topics – not doing anything, but thinking.
Half term is NOT, on the other hand, a period of time in
which pupils can complete huge quantities of homework – it is not there
primarily as a rest time for teachers, but for pupils. (It is the
self-directed bit of self-directed work which is valuable). It is not
appropriate, in my view, to set more than two evenings’ worth of
homework during a week's half term. Nor is half term the right time for
pupils to be doing
coursework, or even preparatory reading – that makes it term time, and
it isn’t. It's a rest.
Half term is not a chance for parents to whisk their
children half a dozen time zones around the world, arriving back as their
children return to school, with their minds still so jet-lagged they don’t know
whether it’s time for breakfast or tea. When children return to school more
tired than they left it, half term hasn’t fulfilled its role as rest.
Half term is not an interlude in which parents should feel
bound to organise their own educational boot camp, with tutors, worthy visits
to worthy museums, and a relentless programme of structured activity. Half term
is a rest!
Society has some strange ideas – for some reason it is
necessary to organise the Prime Minister’s job so that the incumbent has
little opportunity for rest, that (s)he ages about 5 years for every
spend in the role. Some people seem to think that uninterrupted activity
24/7 is the best preparation for making the most important decisions. I
beg to differ.
Rest is undervalued in many quarters – yet it is a precious
part of life, and it is time to reclaim it, starting in schools. Perhaps we
would have a culture slightly less obsessed with the superficial if we started
to teach young people the value both of activity, and of reflection, which requires time to rest from the activity.
And, in teaching it, we might learn something about it too.