COMMENT:

The school holidays have run later than usual for many families this summer. Some schools have returned this week but many are waiting until Monday and some will not restart classes until Thursday, after Waitangi Day.

They can do this having ended last year closer to Christmas that they used to do. And they did that for the sake of working parents. Now a National MP is suggesting schools return earlier for the sake of working parents.

Nicola Willis, mother of four children, three at primary school, proposes the summer holidays be shortened by a week or two. She thinks a break of just five, or even four, weeks would be better than the present six-week summer holiday, not just for working parents but for children and their education.

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Possibly it would be better for teachers too, she suggests, because there might be less of a "summer slide" in pupils' educational progress and therefore less time than needed to be spent getting them back up to speed in the new year.

She is swimming against the current of teachers' wishes, no doubt. They are in the middle of an industrial campaign for lower workloads as well as higher pay. The six-week summer holiday will be not a moment too long for them.

If any change is to be contemplated, teachers would probably support those who say the holidays should be extended into February when the weather is too hot for children to be in classrooms with no air conditioning.

The last week of January and first week of February are normally the warmest of the year and this week the temperatures have been stifling. Next week could be just as hot when all the schools are back.

But the argument for the holiday to run into February had more force when the weather was indifferent through Christmas and New Year. This summer and last, that was not so. Global warming may be bringing us longer summers starting earlier, thanks to higher sea temperatures in spring.

Schools already adapt to summer as best they can, moving classes outside where possible, scheduling camps and field trips, holding summer sports events and improving children's skills in the water. Willis would like to see school facilities used much more for holiday programmes to reduce the pressure on working parents.

While children and their learning should be the main consideration, she makes no apology for promoting the interests of working parents. Schools are not a child-minding service but they pride themselves on serving a community and that means adapting to its needs. Most of their pupils today do not have a fulltime parent at home. Whether their household has one parent or two, the parents are liable to be working with just four weeks holiday a year.

Twelve weeks of school holidays a year pose a constant problem. Daycare and holiday programmes help fill the gap for those who can afford them, and grandparents if they are up to the tiring task. But sooner or later, schools are going to be asked to adapt to today's social environment.

The discussion could start this year if a bill Willis has drafted is drawn for debate in Parliament. Early childhood education is already serving working parents better, schools should do so too.