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Community / Althing debate decides school year is too short

Speaking for the motion (left) were Joe Smith and Caroline Henderson, while Chris Horrix and Barbara Dinnage spoke against. Moderating in the middle was Denise Bell. Photo: Sarah Cooper/Shetland News

THIRTY people gathered at Lerwick Town Hall on Saturday evening for the penultimate debate of the Althing’s season.

This month’s topic was “the school year is too short” which saw a lively debate with plenty of comments from the audience.

Denise Bell chaired the debate for the first time, asking the audience and speakers to “please be gentle”.

Speaking in favour of the motion were Caroline Henderson and Joe Smith, while Chris Horrix and Barbara Dinnage were against.

At the beginning of the night eight people voted in favour of the motion, while five were against. A further 13 people were undecided.

Henderson spoke first, stating: “The current school system was designed in the 19th century.”

She highlighted that the theory around long summer holidays originally being so children could help their farming families was false, and originally seems to come from America with keeping children out of school during the hottest weather. She added that would make sense for countries like Italy and Spain but isn’t necessary in the UK.

She discussed how working parents struggled to cope with childcare and working full time and added that the long holidays weren’t a draw for teachers either given the current problem in recruiting teachers in Scotland.

Henderson also highlighted that the average holiday entitlement for a full-time worker is six weeks of the year, while school holidays are 14 weeks. She said: “Even if parents took the maximum six weeks, there’s still a shortfall of two weeks to cover.”

She finished up with a conclusive statement, saying: “Forget about the days of yore, the times have changed and so has the world.”

Henderson discussed the changes of cost of living, and how the pandemic restrictions negatively impacted education, adding: “Education is a fantastic thing, why are we restricting it? Lengthening the school year will take stress away from parents and families, ease teachers’ burdens, and provide good outcomes for our children which in turn will benefit society.”

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Horrix took to the floor next to provide an opposing statement, drawing from her experiences working in the education sector both in England and Scotland. She said: “I don’t know any child who would say they want a long school day and shorter holidays – aside from Joe Smith.”

Her argument highlighted the work teachers do outside of the school day, saying: “Scotland’s pupils attend school 38 weeks of the year, but teachers spend extra time doing marking and preparation outside of school hours and during holidays.”

She argued that childcare is not a responsibility of educators and schools and should not be relevant to the argument for lengthening the school day or year. Horrix also drew attention to the current absence rates in schools which are at an all-time high after the pandemic.

Horrix added: “Finland has a shorter school year than we do, and their attainment levels are much higher.”

She also stated some of the top performing countries in education have longer holidays than we do in the UK, while adding that “teachers are leaving the profession in droves due to stress” so lengthening the school year would make the role “unsustainable”.

Smith, a fourth year student at the Anderson High School, spoke next. His statement focused on the constant deadlines and pressures for both students and teachers who take exams. He explained he is doing seven different subjects this year, each one requiring coursework, a prelim and a final exam.

He said: “It’s not about teachers getting more work, but struggling with the timescales they already have.”

Smith added that a longer school year would mean teachers have less pressure to meet deadlines, and more time to provide students with support for their impending exams which “make school a more enjoyable environment” for both teachers and pupils.

Dinnage was the final speaker, who admitted as a child she didn’t enjoy school and suggested the current school year was too long. She reflected on school holidays, adding that it was a period for children to get free time, play sports, and have fun with their friends “uncontrolled by the demands of the school year”.

She also highlighted that universities and colleges offer longer holidays, saying: “If you can fit degree level studies into such a short year [32 weeks on average and 24 weeks at Oxford and Cambridge] there’s no justification for making school years longer.”

Dinnage also argued that the current education in system sees students in high school enter the next year before summer holidays begin, calling it “terrible”.

All speakers agreed the current education system in the UK needs a complete overhaul to reflect how much life has changed since it was first designed, especially since IT and the internet have become so relevant in daily life.

The spirited debate saw plenty of comments from the audience, with Gordon Dargie, a former teacher speaking up: “The main problem in education in Scotland is the quality of it rather than the quantity.” He applauded all the speakers, adding that it was “high time” education in Shetland was being discussed.

Another audience member considered how current measures meaning children could only be excluded from class in ‘exceptional circumstances’ is more damaging to the vast majority of children who want to learn.

Other audience members highlighted that there is no correlation among the top-performing countries in education and the length of school year.

Rachel Hughson, a mother of two, said: “Kids need to be exposed to a range of adults in their life, it takes a village to raise a child.”

She added that the focus should be less on attainment levels and more on what a school has to offer a child. Hughson also stated that despite having a career in mechanical engineering, she was working in the college because the holidays and hours suited better for childcare.

The final vote saw Henderson and Smith clinch the win by two votes, with 14 people voting in favour and 12 against. Four people remained undecided.

The last Althing debate takes place on Saturday 13 April at 7.30pm with a ‘soapbox’ theme. Four different speakers will talk about four different topics.

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