Michael Gove has been at it again. I don't just mean attacking teachers and claiming we're in a race with the Chinese - that goes without saying - but casually rewriting history. In a speech at a conference organised by The Spectator (whose education section on their website is exclusively - I think that's the right word - devoted to independent schools), the Education Secretary advocated shorter holidays and longer school days. His justification was partly the need to compete with the fiendish Chinese, but also the need to join the modern world: "The structure of the school term and the school day was designed at a time when we had an agricultural economy". Er, not quite.
Elementary education did not become compulsory till 1880, following the 1870 Education Act, and then only for children between 5 and 10. Secondary education only became compulsory, for children up to 14, in 1918. The introduction of compulsory education, and thus the standard school year, was the result of industrialisation and the need for a literate and numerate workforce. It was not designed to suit an agricultural economy. Hop-picking in Kent is a good example of this truth. The seasonal migration of London families to the hop fields was not an ancient tradition but the result of the development of the railways. In other words, this grew to prominence after the 1870 Act; and it's worth noting that itinerant Gypsy and Irish labour continued to provide the bulk of the hop-picking workforce, despite Cockney legend. During the first half of the twentieth century, the overlap of the hop-picking season in September and the start of the school year was a cause of considerable friction between parents and schools due to unauthorised absences. The idea that the school year was in tune with the agricultural year is plain wrong.
So where did the long summer holiday come from? The answer is that it simply followed the template already established by private schools and universities. To this extent, Gove has a point - there is a link with our agrarian past, but it isn't to do with holidays coinciding with sowing or harvesting (that would actually mean long breaks in April and September, not July and August). The real cause was the aristocratic routine of retiring to a country estate during the summer months, so avoiding the urban heat and smells that were thought to spread disease ("miasmas"). The habits of landowners determined the traditional political and social calendar, hence the long summer recess of Parliament, the court-centred social season, and The City hiatus ("sell in May and go away and return again on Leger day"). The likes of Eton and Oxford naturally followed this rhythm, and just as naturally the Victorian tendency for popular institutions to ape superior manners (e.g. public libraries modelled on college epitomes) meant that state schools did so too.
Gove added personal anecdote to his dodgy history: "I remember half-term in October when I was at school in Aberdeen was called the tattie holiday – the period when kids would go to the fields to pick potatoes. It was also at a time when the majority of mums stayed home. That world no longer exists and we can't afford to have an education system that was essentially set in the 19th century." Gove famously won a scholarship to the elite Robert Gordon's school in Aberdeen, where getting your fingernails dirty anywhere other than the rugby pitch would be frowned upon, so his half-term recollection presumably dates to his primary school years in the 70s.
If you've ever done "tattie howking", you'll know that it's no task for a small child, and common sense dictates that unaccompanied 7-year olds are not an efficient workforce. Though older primary schoolkids were drafted in during the 40s and 50s, by the 70s it was mainly teenagers who would earn cash in the October holidays harvesting spuds and soft fruit. In reality, the nostalgic era of rosy-cheeked kids in wellies was relatively brief and a direct consequence of wartime labour shortages. Before the war, the Scottish potato harvest was predominantly lifted by itinerant Irish labourers - a seasonal migration that dated back to before the Famine (see Patrick McGill's Children of the Dead End for an early twentieth century record). After the war, Irish labour headed off to the better pay and conditions of construction and road building, which buoyed up the seasonal demand for willing teenagers until greater mechanisation and cheap adult labour came to the fore after the 80s. This October, any remaining fieldwork is likely to be done by itinerant Poles and Lithuanians. The point is that the institution of the "tattie holiday" is a mid-twentieth century invention, not the product of the nineteenth century, let alone a legacy of our agrarian past.
So what's Gove up to? What he's proposing is the deregulation of school hours. In other words, there will be no national standard and individual schools can do as they please, which means undermining collective bargaining on teachers' terms of employment. Ultimately, the unions are being neutralised as opponents of privatised education. As the teaching unions pointed out, British kids already spend more days and hours in school than most other countries. It's also worth noting that independent schools typically have longer holidays than state schools (essentially to accommodate ski trips and get full value out of that second home), but this does not appear to have held back their pupils or led to calls for reform. Naturally, there is no shortage of newly-minted free schools implementing longer hours, though this Gradgrindian preference for quantity over quality is clearly a reflection of status anxiety and the normalisation of the belief among the work-rich and time-poor that schools are providers of value-added child-minding.
Amusingly, a "Whitehall source" supported Gove by claiming: "We can either start working as hard as the Chinese, or we'll all soon be working for the Chinese." The source is obviously Gove himself, but his shyness reflects an inconvenient fact: a Chinese 14-year old spends 793 hours over 175 days a year in school, compared to 925 hours over 190 days for the same age group in England and Wales. And while such xenophobia might play well with his natural constituency of Telegraph and Daily Mail readers struggling with (or aspiring to) private school fees, it obscures the fact that The City is already quite sanguine about working for the Chinese. Selling them elite services, from money-laundering to private education, appears to be our future. Floreat Etona.