Teachers pray for cooler days

MATT RILKOFF
Last updated 05:00 26/01/2013

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When January draws to a close and another school year begins Coastal School principal Allan Miles looks to the sky and hopes for rain.

Black clouds and rain puddles are among the only things that can make the start of term one a little less painful for his staff and students mourning the end of their summer holiday.

"I was getting ready for a teacher's-only day earlier this week and I looked ahead and saw it was forecast for showers. I thought thank goodness," he laughs.

"At least I won't be lynched."

He's not the first principal to face the weather problem. The timing of New Zealand's summer school holidays comes up every year as students swap their jandals for sandals and days at the beach for lessons in literature.

There is no question it is going to be hot and uncomfortable. On Monday, when many students around the country start heading back to school, the Metservice forecast is enough to draw tears.

In New Plymouth it's pegged to peak at 25 degrees Celsius. It's the same for Tuesday and right through to Friday.

"Last year my English class was so hot and stuffy it smelt like old dogs," 15-year-old New Plymouth Girls' High School student Billie Alty says.

"You don't really focus on learning. All you want to do is be outside," fellow student Bridget McGechan, 16, says.

"The teachers don't want to be there either. I think if holidays started in the middle of January that would be better."

From a climatic perspective she is right on the money. Niwa figures for urban centres over the last 30 years show February is marginally hotter than January, at least in New Plymouth.

The average temperature for January from 1981 to 2010 was 17.8C. For the same period in February it was 18C. January may have more sunshine hours at 248.4 to 225 but February has less wet days and a lower average rainfall of 85.4 millimetres compared to 114.6mm.

From these numbers it would make sense to have the summer holidays in February, but don't hold your breath, Homeschooling New Zealand principal Todd Roughton says.

"You are not going to change some of these things. It's very, very hard. The chrissy holidays, the Christmas at the beach, that is enshrined like a lot of things in New Zealand. It's like we are on a set of railway lines that stretch out in front of us and we can't get off them."

The Kamo-based teacher says homeschooling gave him the flexibility to teach his four children around the hottest months of the year. Mainstream schools do not, indeed cannot, comprehend that freedom, he says.

"Most educators in our society don't know anything else than the status quo. It's a bit like talking with Henry Ford. Any colour you want as long as it's black."

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Frustrated talk about the folly of returning to school when the sun is at its hottest has been going on for decades, former New Plymouth Boys' High School principal Lyall French-Wright says. But there are powerful forces behind the placement of those holidays and why they are unlikely to change.

"In terms of comfort of teaching, yes you would have your holidays in February and March but the biggest change would be about the timing of exams, getting the results and linking in with universities," he says. "I know it is not convenient for parents who want to take off time in February or March when the weather is better or the airfares are cheaper, but that shouldn't be the argument.

"It should be about what suits our students best. When they need their breaks. When they need to sit their exams."

And besides, it's not that bad teaching in February, Mr French-Wright says.

Post Primary Teachers Association president Angela Roberts says changing term times to avoid the hottest month is not the right approach. Any change to summer holidays would probably have to leave the two weeks around Christmas untouched with students then coming back for four weeks schooling in January before breaking for another four weeks in February, she says.

"That would destroy the momentum of learning. Educational outcomes won't benefit. I think it would be better to put the energy into creating more appropriate spaces for people to be in during that time of year."

The simplest way to do this would involve putting air conditioners in classrooms, though this could cost between $5000 and $10,000 a classroom, Sam Tyson, of New Plymouth air conditioning company Climate, says.

"Some schools are struggling to reroof their buildings so air conditioning isn't a top priority for them even though temperature does effect learning," Ms Roberts says.

It might not be long before air conditioning is a cost schools cannot afford to avoid. Niwa predictions around climate change give the country an average warming of 0.2C to 2C in the next 25 years and as much as 5.1C by 2090. This could see New Plymouth's average maximum January temperatures rise to as high as 26.8C and 27C for February.

The US school resource website Ergonomics4school.com lists a comfortable summer temperature at 20C to 24C. Above this and students start falling asleep.

This is already a very real risk and it is no coincidence swimming sports and outdoor activities dominate the February curriculum.

"Yes it is hot, but we use the weather to our advantage," Mr Miles says. "We have our swimming sports, athletics and orientation events and its perfect weather for everyone to get to know each other. For us the first month is seldom 100 per cent in the classroom."

- Taranaki Daily News

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