The summer holiday has about it a different quality from all other times of the year. While the school premises team are, if anything, busier than ever in the summer break when most of the development and major maintenance work gets done, there is still a feeling of ‘powering down’ in July and August.
There has, of course, been much debate about the pros and cons of the long summer break for schools with Mr Gove’s bid in 2013 to cut short the summer holiday being one of his few reforms not to be achieved. It is certainly true that, in one sense, it is a throwback to a long-past society with different priorities. Michaelmas in September, traditionally the time to celebrate the harvest coming in, is nowadays a minor punctuation mark in the Christian calendar but, at one time, it was a major event in the year. The effective start of the farming year, it became the time to employ new staff, begin a rental on a new property – in effect the start of the ‘official’ year. It made sense for university terms to fall into line with this rhythm and, in time, schools duly followed suit.
Most children nowadays do not have to help bring the harvest home in the summer (although I know of at least a handful of girls locally who help on the family farm and am pleased to take this opportunity to congratulate Louise Penn as she prepares to start a degree course in Agriculture at Newcastle University).
It is understandable, too, that parents feel keenly the pressure of finding childcare for younger and meaningful activities for their older children and also resent the fact that flight and package holidays suddenly soar in price immediately after term ends. Equally, teachers learn, as part of their training, to smile benignly while keeping their thoughts to themselves when ribbed by friends (and sometimes even slight acquaintances) about ‘those long holidays.’
As I began to gear up for the new term after a wonderful summer break, I found myself reflecting on this topic and asking myself whether the special quality of the summer holiday goes beyond the obvious benefit of a rest when the weather is generally fine. Revisiting an essay, entitled ‘Time and False Noses,’ written in the 1960s by Cambridge-based anthropologist Edmund Leach, reminded me that there is much more to a school’s ‘summertime’ than easy living.
Anthropologists long ago noticed that all cultures divide time into ‘ordinary’ time and ‘extraordinary’ or ‘sacred’ time, when all work stopped and time was dedicated to special events and activities such as feasts and rituals. Our holydays/holidays – that extended break when we can turn off the alarm clock, and forget about bells and rules, lessons and homework – is a good example of ‘sacred’ time in this sense. Time set aside to do extraordinary things – perhaps extraordinary in the sense of exotic, or maybe just lying around doing little or nothing, in a way we cannot normally get away with.
This is about more than just rest.
Virginia Woolf said ‘It is in our idleness…that the submerged truth sometimes comes to the top.’ And it is true that we need some time of idleness on occasions just to allow our minds to wind down and to get below the surface of what we feel about things, to think about them more deeply than we can ever hope to do day to day.
Where ordinary days are dedicated to work and routine, holidays are dedicated to the opposites – leisure and play, or feasts, gatherings and performances. Traditionally, these were the main festivals of the calendar and, in our modern, secular society, the concept has been reappropriated as a social, musical or cultural event. One thinks of Glastonbury or Edinburgh. The GDST’s inaugural Multitude Festival, which many of our U4s enjoyed in Ipswich in July, was in the same tradition. Leach noticed that these times were also associated with either dressing up, dressing down or even a foray into fancy dress – what he meant by ‘false noses.’ (Think Red Nose Day.)
Extraordinary time makes no sense without ordinary time just as ‘holiday’ assumes ‘workaday.’ If every day were a holiday, then no day would be in fact. Or, as Leach put it, ‘the interval between two successive festivals of the same type… is usually a named period e.g. “week”, “year.” Without the festivals, such periods would not exist, and all order would go out of social life.’ We need that contrast and, indeed, we are hard-wired at some level to thrive on it – as I was keen to emphasise to the girls in our first Assembly of the year together!
Incidentally, Leach also noticed that we use rituals to help us negotiate psychologically the transition from ‘sacred’ time back to ‘ordinary’ time (and vice versa) – which puts a whole new complexion on that vital purchase last week of a new pencil case when there was nothing very much wrong with the last one…
Whatever your summer break brought you, I hope that it was an extraordinary time and that, setting false noses aside for a while, you are ready to enjoy the marvels of the ordinary time to come.
Dr Helen Stringer