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 not.
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 could, 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 many (still). The activity of term followed by the reflection of the holidays, however, builds in to the cycle of learning cognition, followed by metacognition. While this pair of activities is vital, and this is widely known, the structuring and highlighting of metacognitive opportunities (the reason why Oxford and Cambridge have such long holidays) is an opportunity most schools simply allow to pass by.
Secondly, half term is a chance 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, they:
- 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 so little opportunity for rest, that (s)he ages about 5 years for every year they 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.