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Re-imagine holidays to make them happy days

Date

Ainslie MacGibbon

No thanks ... the ubiquitous school holiday programs read like a birthday party on an endless loop.

No thanks ... the ubiquitous school holiday programs read like a birthday party on an endless loop. Photo: Supplied

It's been challenging to find a child who spent the summer harvesting crops, or undergoing immersion in agriculture - outdoors that is, not with Smurfberries, a Smurfy hoe and an iPod. Or Ninja Fingers. Yet that's what the long summer holiday was originally intended for. Is it still relevant to take school holidays this way? Everyone, at the same time? Or just burdensome?

Coastal gridlock, jacked up accommodation tariffs, overcrowded city streets, museums and other venues, and a proliferation of material entitled How to Survive the School Holidays, don't necessarily point to a good time being had by all.

Landlords of holiday rentals are perhaps having the best time of all. Fast food chains also have a knack of ''carpe dieming'' - recent research by Griffith University found there are more fast food ads during school holiday periods.

What if families could choose when they take their school holidays? At a time when there are cheaper travel opportunities, or a time that coincides with their own cultural festivals and family rituals. Or, a time when they feel they need a break. Together even. Not parents taking leave at staggered times to cover the school holidays.

Prominent educator Salman Khan says in his recent book, The One World Schoolhouse: Education Reimagined, that of all the outmoded ideas and customs that have made contemporary education inefficient and inappropriate to our needs, summer holidays are among the most egregious, and a monumental waste of time and money. Bummer, summer.

According to Khan, the most serious downside of summer holidays isn't just that kids stop learning; it's that they almost immediately start unlearning - unlearning meaning the atrophy of neural pathways that we used to have. He also laments the billions of dollars in education infrastructure around the world - school buildings, labs, gymnasiums - that sit vacant or seriously underutilised during the holidays.

Wealthy families may have the luxury of travelling overseas with their children to expand their horizons, or enroll in high-priced summer camps and activities, while others just scrape through the long holiday. In some regions crime rates rise. The extended summer holiday neither creates equal expectations, nor delivers equal experiences. But Khan says the great majority of summer hours are wasted while kids watch TV or play video games while waiting for their parents to come home from work.

His preferred scenario for a school of the future would be for a perpetual school experience where holidays can be taken whenever there is a need - not too different from what happens in companies. Khan believes education is increasingly capable of offering personalised learning to students (many schools already purport to offer this), where students learn at their own pace, facilitated by teachers and technology, so a departure at any time of the year can be seamless, without needing to shut down an entire system.

It is unlikely an alternative without flaws exists. But it is worth thinking about. Such a shift would need parameters, such as preserving the stand-down time around Christmas and New Year, or mandating the number of weeks students (and teachers) would need to take off. Understandably, some would have fears that children would end up in school all year round. But it is naive to believe this doesn't already happen.

The ubiquitous school holiday programs (run by schools and other providers) read like a birthday party on an endless loop - zoo, movies, cake-making day, BYO electronic games to play all day, pamper yourself spa-day, design-your-own-tattoo day. Some are open from 6:30am through to early evening. A quick ring around revealed a number were fully booked.

Last year BRW and the Australian Great Place to Work institute cited the following advice in their top 10 ways to be a best place to work: offer staff a free day off on their birthday; allow working from home one day a week; make work hours flexible; make the workplace family friendly; give staff flexible time off and annual leave. Companies at the top of the Forbes Top 100 Companies to Work For in 2013 list emphasised wellness, flexibility and family-friendly workplaces.

Companies, and universities to an extent, are moving away from industrialised models and adapting to household circumstances. But schools are stuck. Perhaps it's time to consider a different model. Taking time off when it suits may even have a positive effect on absenteeism rates - and learning.

Ainslie MacGibbon is a writer, farmer and mother.

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