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The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
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School Hours and Holidays in Day Schools for Boys.

by Charles Simmons, M.A.
Head Master of University College School, Preparatory Branch, Hampstead.
Volume 4, 1893/94, pgs. 437-446


It seems to me that the time has come for reconsidering the distribution between work and play, of the day and of the year, in secondary schools for boys. It is an obvious anomaly to begin with, that we have the same system of holidays for boarding schools and day schools, although the conditions of the two are so different. The classes using the two are to some extent distinct, but in any case the system of public day schools of the second grade, together with the few great public schools which are day schools, is important enough to be considered with exclusive reference to its own requirements and conditions. Again, with reference to the distribution of the day, it is a noticeable fact that within the last twenty years have come into existence a large number of High Schools for Girls, corresponding exactly in position and attainment with the schools I am speaking of, which have adopted from the first a quite different system from that commonly in use. It is an extraordinary thing that the two systems should exist side by side, with more or less serious inconvenience to every family using both, without giving rise to any debate as to why there should be this difference, much less to any movement on the part of parents having for its object the assimilation of the two systems.

Before speaking of our present practice, and of what I think would be an improvement on it, I will give a few particulars as to that of English schools in the past, and that of foreign schools at the present day. A fair specimen of the rules laid down in some instances by the pious founders of sixteenth century grammar schools may be taken from the sill of William Ermysted, a Canon Residentiary of St. Paul's Cathedral, who in 1548 established the Grammar School of Skipton in Craven, Yorkshire: "The master shall be a chaplain or priest; he shall be personally present in the parish church of Skipton every Sunday and feast day when there shall be service, and shall celebrate in the church on Sundays and feast days, and three days in every week before seven in the morning. He shall daily enter and teach in the school, except feast days, unless hindered by sickness or other reasonable cause, immediately after six in the morning from the 1st of March to the 1st of October, and shall then faithfully exercise himself in teaching the boys until eleven, and from one in the afternoon until six. And from the 1st of October till the 1st of March he shall begin at seven in the morning, and shall instruct the boys until five or six, as necessity may require. He shall not absent himself from the said church and school above twenty days at one time or several in any year, under penalty for the first offence of note, then 30s., and for the third removal from his office." So in the statutes of Kirkby Stephen Grammar School, Westmoreland, drawn up in 1566 by Thomas, Lord Wharton, it was ordained that the school hours should be from 6 to 11 and 1 to 6 in summer, and from 7 to 11 and 1 to 5 in winter.

The school day, therefore, consisted of ten hours in summer, and in the winter of eight or nine hours, as necessity might require, a phrase which contains interesting possibilities. Whether home-work was exacted besides we cannot tell, but in one other instance I find an admirable regulation made to the effect that the scholars were always to converse in Latin. This rule, if scrupulously observed, more than supplied in an easy and natural manner the absence of definite preparation. Holidays there were apparently to be none, except, no doubt, the afternoons of feast days and the days on which the school master was absent, when the school would probably be closed. At Kirkby Stephen provision is made in a quaint style for the possibility of the master's falling ill: As often as the said schoolmaster be craized, so the time of his disease pass not one month, the usher was to take his place. It is difficult to conceive what a school day of this kind must have been like, especially towards the end of it. With all the advantages of a state of siege, in days when probably neither parents nor magistrates were sentimental as to the amount or the frequency of corporal punishment, a master could no doubt secure order. But with a curriculum consisting entirely of reading, writing, arithmetic, and Latin, without any of the relief afforded in a modern school to a master by change of boys, and to a boy by change of room and master, the monotony must have been indeed dreadful. It is hardly surprising that the masters were thought to need stringent warnings against the haunting of alehouses and taverns after school hours. I may notice in passing, that masters in day schools have been probably in all cases long ago relieved from Sunday duty. The latest trace I have found of this requirement was at Brentwood, where, in 1866, voluntary classes were still held on Sunday.

A century and a half later William Hutchinson, in founding by will a free school at Bowes, in Yorkshire, orders that the master and usher, with the scholars, shall daily through the week (Sundays and feast days alone excepted), resort to the school at seven o'clock in the morning, and depart thence at four o' clock in winter, and five in summer. He proceeds: "I will that the scholars shall play twice a week, viz., on Thursdays and Saturdays, after dinner, and never without the licence of the master or, in his absence, of the usher: unless the governors come thither and think it meet, or some worshipful person present require it, which thing I charge upon his conscience to observe with all carefulness, and upon such playdays, especially in summertime, to appoint the boys to get bows and arrows, for their better exercise in their bodies."

What was understood by a half-holiday may be illustrated by an ordinance of Bungay Grammar School, Suffolk, providing that school was to be open on Saturday and every half-holiday until three o'clock in the afternoon.

Again, in 1719, the vicar and lord of the manor framed Statutes for Market Drayton Grammar School, in which the same hour of 7 a.m. was specified, and I can remember the same plan being tried during the summer term in my own school days, when for the sake of, I think, and hour's work I had a walk of a mile each way. By this exertion we purchased the boon of going home at 4.0 instead of 5.0. I can well remember how drowsy every one was in the afternoon, and how very little work was done.

From a search of some extent in the reports of the Schools Inquiry Commission of 1865, I find that on an average the number of weeks in the school year was then 40, and the number of school hours in the week 30. But there was considerable diversity. For instance, out of 15 schools, I think all semi-classical, in the West Midland division, one worked for 38 weeks, 2 for 39, 7 for 40, 2 for 41, 3 for 42. In schools of a more elementary character the number of weeks was often as great as 44 or 46. As to hours, one had only 25, one as much as 37 1/2. This diversity becomes much more striking when home-work is taken into account, but unfortunately very few of the reports give any definite information about it. Where such information is given the time mentioned varies from 8 to 18 hours per week, partly of course according to differences of age. Taking home-work into account, Gloucester Cathedral School worked 1443 hours per annum, while Hereford, a school of exactly the same character, worked 1720, and Tewkesbury, a school of rather lower grade, no less than 1760.

Most of these school probably had two half-holidays a week, in which case the school work must have been arranged very much as at Ipswich, on the plan of 4 days of 6 hours each, 3 in the morning and 3 in the afternoon, and 2 days of 3 hours each, the hours being 9-12, 2-5. At St. Peter's School, York, on the other hand, three half-holidays were secured by working on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday till 1.0.

In some schools a difference was made between summer and winter, a reduction of three hours or more per week being made in winter. At Bradford, on the other hand, unless there is a mistake in the report, an exactly opposite system prevailed, for the hours were 25 per week in summer and 30 in winter.

In Germany the holidays in the Lyceum and Real gymnasium amount to about the same number of weeks as in England, but they are very differently distributed. The school year begins in spring, not, as with us, in autumn. As the exact date of its beginning depends on Easter, one school year differs to some extent in length from another. The Easter holidays consist of a month, a week is given at Whitsuntide, the summer holidays nearly coincide with the month of July, the Michaelmas and Christmas holidays are for a fortnight each.

The number of school hours in the week varies from 32, or with an optional subject 34, down to 28. In the preparatory classes the number is of course less.

What strikes one most is the arrangement by which the great bulk of the work is done in a morning of no less than five hours, without any break other than such as is inevitable in changing classes. This seems to be due to a comparatively recent change, the object of which was to secure two free afternoons a week, Wednesday and Saturday. On the other days drawing, singing, and gymnastic classes are held, and in some cases classes for modern languages and chemistry. A number of games are apparently taught, as it were, in short period of half-an-hour each, which reads very oddly in the case of cricket and what appear to be Rugby and Association football. As to hoe work I can give not details, but I understand the amount of it is large.

In France a decree of June, 1890, fixes the duration of sedentary work, which includes preparation, at six hours in the elementary classes, for boys, as I understand, of from nine to eleven or twelve, at eight in the Grammar division for boys of from eleven to fourteen, and at ten-and-a-half in summer, and ten in winter in the higher division called of Rhetoric, for boys of from thirteen to sixteen. The latter amount seems excessive. The morning consists of three-and-a-half hours, from 8 to 11.30, or from 8.30 to 12.

The holidays extend to quite a week more than is usual in England, the New Year holidays consisting of a fortnight at Paris, a few days less in the country, the Easter holidays also of a fortnight, while from three to five days are given at Whitsuntide. The summer holidays in the Lycees extend over the whole of August and September, work beginning again on the first Monday in October.

The details I have given above from the reports of the Schools Enquiry Commission, refer of course in nearly all cases to the old system of four quarters. The introduction of the three term system has not materially altered the general practice, except of course that the Michaelmas holiday has disappeared.

As a rule the holidays amount to thirteen weeks, the rest of the year being divided into three terms of about thirteen weeks each. The summer holiday consists of six, seven or even eight weeks, resembling in fact more and more the long vacation of a college; the remainder of the thirteen weeks being divided in various proportions between Christmas and Easter. The date of the latter holiday still continues to be determined as a rule by the date of Easter. In the present year, as Easter fell very early, some schools fixed their holidays independently of it. As other, probably the majority, adhered to the older plan, an amount of inconvenience resulted which forcibly illustrated the need of some agreement on this point. Notable exceptions to the general practice are that the great school at Manchester takes its spring holiday, in accordance with local custom, at Whitsuntide instead of Easter, and that the City of London School continues to be distinguished by the shortness of its holidays, which amount to only ten weeks in the year.

In considering what changes should be made in the present system, I start with the proposition that the work of the term is far too hard while it lasts, both for the teacher and for pupil, especial for the former, but that it does not last nearly long enough. We have got into a vicious circle. Long holidays are necessary because the work of the term is so exhausting: the work of the term must be made exhausting to compensate for the length of the holidays. If I ask what reason there is for thus compressing the work of the year into thirty-nine weeks, I can find no reason except that it is the established practice to do so. Not merely is this not the case in any other department of work other than teaching and learning, but it is a striking fact that no parent would think of adopting in regard to music or any other subject learned out of school, the same principle which he accepts without question in regard to languages and mathematics.

In teaching languages especially it seems to me that our cardinal rule should be "little and often." We exactly reverse this by teaching a great deal during three months, and then allowing a complete interruption of study for three, four, six, or even eight weeks. We all know that as a rule the interruption must be complete. Very few parents have time or inclination to keep themselves familiar with the details of what their boys are learning, and without that familiarity it is almost impossible for them to take up the direction of studies. Such direction is least likely to be given just in the cases in which it is most necessary. And where it is given, it introduces in proportion to its efficiency the evils which would result from sending a boy alternately to two different schools. Holiday tasks must in practice be voluntary and will always be undertaken, if they are of an intellectual character, by the exceptional boys who have already worked their best during the term and would be benefited by a complete rest. The general rule is that work is not only abandoned but forgotten, and it sometimes strikes one that many boys believe the raison d'etre of holidays to consist in preparing a mental tabula rasa for the operation of the following term. These interruptions have, I believe, a disastrous effect quite out of proportion to their actual duration, just because they tend to destroy in a boy's mind the sense of continuity in his studies. On the other hand I believe that for play quite as much as for work, the holidays are to a great extent a mere waste of time. As soon as the first delightful sensation of absolute freedom has passed away, I believe that boys are secretly weary of holidays. A boy cannot appreciate the happiness of dolce far niente; his characteristic phrase for justifying any apparently aimless method of occupying time is that it is "something to do."

The fact is that, especially for London boys, as soon as work ends, play ends too. All play, such as boys most enjoy, is more and more associated with school, and is attainable only during term time. On the other hand even for boys who make no great effort after learning, the wear and tear of the term is very great. The pressure of home preparation, though I think that efforts have been very generally made to decrease it, or at all events to avoid increasing it, cannot be otherwise than sever when it comes after about five hours detention in school, to which has to be added the time spent in walking, or still worse, in traveling to and from school. On the other hand, the desire to secure better results without increasing the labour of the pupil, has exerted itself in increasing enormously the strain upon the teacher. The best teachers I have known, work as a rule far harder and far longer out of school than their pupils. Any conscientious teacher must feel that the mere confinement of children in school is not an object in itself, but a necessary evil only to be justified by the attainment of great results. If a teacher is to teach in school, and not, as the manner of some is, merely to hear lessons and mark written work, he must give a large amount of time out of school to the work of preparation and correction. The result is to subject the teacher to a continuous strain which leaves practically no time during term either for study or for social life. The holidays are of course entirely delightful, because he know how to use them, and in proposing to curtail them, I am, as a distinguished teacher said to me, proposing to destroy the one thing which makes the profession attractive. But I can say from my own experience that more leisure for study and for home life during term time would be a more than sufficient compensation. The holidays bring an embarrass de richesses.

I have heard it objected to any proposal for curtailing the holidays, that is would discourage a boy's miscellaneous reading. I think the effect would be exactly the reverse. The habit of reading is one of very gradual growth, and this is just what our system takes no account of. A boy has no time for reading during term. Is it likely that he will methodically utilize any part of his time for reading during the holidays? And again I have heard it said that it is only in the holidays that parents can really see anything of their children. This is true, but the very fault of our system is that in term they see nothing of them, in the holidays they see a great deal too much. The daily round of duties to which both parents are as a rule bound, allows some leisure, it is to be hoped, every day, but very little continuous leisure. A parent's association with and influence upon a child must be continuous and gradual, if it is to exist at all. There is no time to cultivate such association and influence in three disconnected periods of a few weeks each, during which the parent is only partially free.

If I must make some definite proposals of my own which may elicit the opinions of others, I will put them briefly as follows. I would cut down the summer holidays to a month, which is quite as long as any schoolmaster and most parents can afford to spend at the seaside or abroad. I would give not less than a fortnight at Christmas, because children cannot stand the strain of schoolwork in the day and parties at night. At Easter or at a fixed time in the spring I would give a week. If the summer holidays could be put earlier than August, I would perhaps give a few days at Michaelmas. In this way I would save for work, and, as I consider, for play, five or six weeks. On the other hand I would so reduce the strain of schoolwork during the term that even the Easter holiday might be dispensed with. I would do this by giving two half-holidays in the week besides the whole of Saturday, or else by lengthening morning school and doing away with afternoon school altogether. For town day-schools I think this would be an excellent system, which would obviate many difficulties. If any classes were held in the afternoon, they should be for drawing, handicraft or gymnastics, intellectual work being confined to the morning hours. I would re-introduce what has almost been discontinued, the giving of occasional holidays on national or local occasions. With the greatest history in the world behind us, we are singularly ashamed of recognizing our greatness. On this point I am glad to quote the opinion of Canon Daniel, who, at a Health Exhibition Conference on Education in 1884, spoke of the need of these occasional holidays, and recorded his own suggestion that "the high schools should have a hagiology of their own, and that holidays should be kept in memory of the great educational reformers." I believe that these occasional holidays would be an immense boon to teachers, quite apart from their value as a help to the training in citizenship which is one of our most glaring educational wants.

There is no doubt, I think, that it would be a great advantage if the summer holidays could begin a month earlier than they do. Even at the beginning of August the length of daylight has already decreased one hour; at the beginning of September this decrease amounts to two and three-quarter hours, while the weather is becoming cool and unsettled. July is not only the best month for the seaside and for outdoor life generally, but is also the worst month in the year for school-work. On an average of fifty years the highest temperature may be expected in the middle of the month. It is peculiarly unfortunate that the chief examination of the year, which subjects both boys and masters to a strain altogether exceptional, should fall at the end of the term which covers the hottest weather, the longest days, the athletic sports, and the greater part of the cricket season. So far as I can see, there is no reason why the summer holidays should be fixed as they are, except the assumed necessity of having the three terms of equal length, and the school fee divided into three equal parts. Why should not the autumn term be longer than the other two, the fee being arranged in proportion? It is, perhaps, the best term in the year for work, and already, as a rule, stands by itself, the other two being grouped for the purposes of the summer examination. If the summer term must remain as it is, I would fix the chief examination at Easter, and drop home-work from that time up to the summer holiday, as I believe is done at Fettes College.

Some additional time for outdoor games may be got by dropping gymnastics and handicraft, which are specially suitable occupations for the winter months.

The general result of a change such as I have roughly indicated, would be to reduce to some extent, perhaps to a considerable extent, the number of hours during which a teacher would be engaged in actual teaching. At the same time I believe that from a number of hours thus reduced, a considerably greater educational result would be gained. Other advantages would result, of which I may specify two. It would be much easier, without any excessive strain, to impose extra tasks as a punishment for idleness, and to give extra teaching at home or at school in aid of boys dull or backward. Another advantage would be that the slighter ailments, which cost a day or two of absence, would be got over with less injury to lessons.

In conclusion, I would suggest that the subject of my paper is one which pre-eminently belongs to parents, though it is also one upon which schoolmasters seldom, if ever, hear the opinion of parents. Why should not the Parents' Union undertake the task of collecting those opinions?