End of term. Already?

Children walking to school Alternative calendars often give pupils longer holidays outside the summer

As many schoolchildren begin half-term, does one academy's move to a five-term year indicate the calendar could soon be shaken up for good?

Ah, the joys of half-term... hours playing football, hanging around with mates, trips to bowling alleys and cinemas.

But children at the newly-opened East Manchester Academy are not just midway through autumn term this week. With the school trialling a five-term calendar, they have finished their first full term.

The break mirrors the usual half-term, so they will notice little difference from children at most schools in England and Wales.

But next year, when others get a measly five-day February half-term, the academy's pupils will work a week longer before enjoying a fortnight's rest - then another two weeks in May.

The catch? A shorter summer break - at just four weeks.

Headteacher Guy Hutchence says that while parents have rose-tinted memories of long summers, children often simply get bored.

Revamping the school calendar is often mooted but few schools have taken the leap.

One which did was Greensward College in Hockley, Essex.

Busting a holiday myth

The long summer holiday is commonly referred to as a throwback to Victorian demands for children to help with the harvest but that's not remotely true. Summer holidays didn't match harvest time because a lot of crops were harvested in September.

You didn't get state schools until after 1870 and then holidays were whenever school boards thought, with no rhyme nor reason other than to have Christmas, Easter and summer breaks.

Before then, if you were a teacher at a common school, you would be paid by the week and so wouldn't want even four weeks off.

The long break actually came from that enjoyed by the upper classes - in parliament, law courts, universities and public schools - which eventually filtered down to urban schools.

However, in rural areas, problems in early autumn - with children not attending school to help with the harvest - were common until the 1950s, when agriculture became industrialised.

Seven years ago, as its then chairman of governors, Ian Foster led the move - aimed at cancelling out unpredictability caused by a "floating" Easter.

"At a very critical time of year, it could make exam preparations, planning revision and schemes of work more difficult," he says.

Now an academy - state-funded but operating outside local authority control - it has fortnight-long holidays in March and at the end of May, regardless of where Easter falls. However, it retains the six-week summer break.

A vocal minority objected to Greensward's move - but few on educational grounds.

"It was more about the social aspect of parents having kids in multiple schools... and clashes with timeshare weeks," he says.

Mr Foster now chairs the Academies Enterprise Trust, overseeing seven schools in south-east England.

The government's drive towards academies and free schools, with independent management, raises the prospect of more varied calendars, he says.

"Schools always had the ability to make these kinds of changes but there's a natural instinct not to."

So why do school holidays fall when they do?

School year calendars

It's commonly speculated that the long summer break is a throwback to the agricultural calendar - when children were needed to help with the harvest - though recent research suggests otherwise.

What is certain, is that if a time management expert sat down to design a school calendar from scratch, it wouldn't look like the current one, says Clare Evans.

Ending the academic year at Christmas - when many businesses close for two weeks - would make sense as parents would already have time off, says Ms Evans, author of Time Management for Dummies.

Learning loss

"You could begin the year in January, with shorter terms spread out more evenly throughout the year and not worry about an Easter break. It would help teachers and pupils."

If schools ran individual calendars, businesses would avoid the periodic problem of employees battling for leave, she adds.

Scotland has long had a distinct calendar. Varying between authorities, it generally starts and finishes earlier but includes a seven-week summer break.

Start Quote

[A long summer break] forces many from low-income backgrounds to give up their jobs because they can't find childcare cover”

End Quote Anand Shukla Daycare Trust

Meanwhile, most schools in Northern Ireland follow the Republic's example in giving pupils July and August off, with shorter breaks at other times.

Governors in England and Wales seem more inclined to curtail the summer.

In Leeds, the David Young Community Academy operates a seven-term year - beginning in June, immediately after exams - with a short summer. Last month, several schools in Halifax declared their intention to even out terms and have a four-week summer break.

There are several arguments behind the move to shaking up the school calendar, and cutting the summer break.

Last month, MP Frank Field said the six-week summer break harmed poorer children who lost out because of the lack of formal reading or writing.

Meanwhile, government figures show pupils missed nearly four million school days in England last spring and autumn as parents sought cheaper breaks, with package holiday prices doubling during half-term, according to BBC's Watchdog.

But would a different term structure simply force up holiday prices at other times?

Passengers at a busy airport Would shaking up school holidays stop parents taking children out of school during off-season?

Then there is the problem of finding childcare or holiday activity clubs during pupils' 13 weeks holiday per year. The Daycare Trust reported in July that the average weekly cost per child was £93.

"[A long summer break] institutionalises women's working patterns and forces many from low-income backgrounds to give up their jobs because they can't find childcare cover for such a long period," says acting chief executive Anand Shukla.

Again, however, changing the school calendar might only shift the problem.

For some a hotch-potch of term times would be a nightmare.

Chris Keates, from teaching union the NASUWT, says shifting from council-recommended dates causes problems for parents.

"[A standard calendar] allows local authorities to appropriately plan services and facilities and means that parents with children at different schools are better able to plan and organise their childcare."

Others argue that with new pressures like Sats making schooldays more stressful, children need time to relax.

Family time

The NUT union's Christine Blower argues that "not everything is learned at school" and that family time in summer is crucial.

She points out that children in England and Wales have the shortest summers in the European Union - pupils in Italy and Portugal get almost three months - and says surveys suggest no link between longer classroom hours and higher standards.

Cynics may suggest teachers have a vested interest in protecting long summer breaks.

But former headteacher Steve Mynard, who edits a newsletter for primary heads, regards long holidays as in lieu of hours worked outside class.

Even so, he believes alterations to the school year are worth considering.

"Teachers would find it difficult to accept initially [but] I could see benefits in terms of staff wellbeing."

No matter what the system, it seems school holidays will always cause a headache for someone - except, of course, the children.

Below is a selection of your comments

Wonderful idea, more schools should adopt this. My sons are ready to go back to school after four weeks of hols in the summer. They miss their friends and the routine. It may stop the holiday firms charging expensive prices when the school are on holiday.

Sam Joiner, Bierton, Bucks

As the son of two teachers, I can say for definite that the long summer breaks and half terms are needed, not for the sake of the children but the teachers. Both my parents work well into the night each day preparing classes, marking work and organising staff. If they did not have the half-term breaks as well as the summer, they would simply burn out before the end of term. Teachers need these breaks to re-energise themselves and ensure that their standard of teaching is not affected by being overworked (which is common) over a long period of time. If the government is concerned about lower income children losing out, then they should provide free summer school places to those most at need.

Tim Watts, Southampton, UK

What about autistic children who enjoy regular routines? The six-week break is a nightmare for those children who lose their routine and structure... it is also a nightmare for parents who can't find suitable childcare so that they can continue to work! I say shorten the summer holidays, little and often. Although each school would benefit to have their own timetable, this may cause problems for parents who have more than one child at different schools. Luckily I have a very flexible employer - what about others who don't?

natalie brownell, Sheffield, England

I don't believe that natalie's point is reflective of the student population - university requires a very different approach and self-discipline. The regular break terms and shorter summer holidays is a great idea, will ensure kids keep an active mind and will gear them more into 'work mode' for the real world.

Matthew Bewers, Bristol

There is one side effect with making the smaller terms that I believe most people won't consider. Having just graduated from university I noticed early on in my first year that after six weeks of term (universities have about a 10-week term with no half terms) the students become dispirited, grumpy and lose interest in work. Having noticed this I assume it is down to being used to having holidays after every six weeks. I assume similar is found in work places that hire younger people just out of school. It would be interesting to see how this changes with changes to the school term system. I'm not saying that terms shouldn't change because of this, just wondered if anyone else had noticed it?

kimq, Dorset

I don't think changing the term times and school holidays will make one bit of difference, especially if attendance is the main argument. Holidays taken during school holidays can cost a parent up to 185% what it would cost if taken during school term time (taken from Which? magazine). This practice by holiday companies and airlines should be outlawed. It penalises anyone with children of school age. Also, even for parents who work, it is not the length of the holiday that is an issue. At my workplace, both myself and my colleague have children at school. We are told not to take our children out of school for holidays, so we need to take our time off during school holidays... but we can't both have the time off. So that means one of us must be at work and be unable to spend the time with our children as the NUT are saying is crucial in a child's overall education. The UK needs to change it's opinion on bringing up children. They are the people who will be doing our jobs in the future. We need to give them more of ourselves, instead of just tea, a kiss and bedtime! Besides... I actually miss mine.

Ruth, Manchester UK

Brooke Weston here in Corby has been running these holiday calendars for years. Pupils have eight-week terms, then two weeks off, eight on, two off. In the summer they have four weeks off. Both of my children are now at BW, but when one was in a junior school that ran 'normal' holidays it was a right pain, as me and my wife had to juggle our annual leave between the two children. One was off when the other wasn't. Overall I think the "eight and two" - as its known - is good for everyone... when you have both children having the same holidays!

stuart, Corby, England

When our school 'Easter' holidays didn't include Easter a couple of years ago, it was very unpopular round here because people couldn't go away for a week including one or more of the public holidays at Easter. It also played havoc with families with parents working at the university (a major employer round here), as the school and university vacations did not overlap at all.

Helen, Bristol

The only problem with doing away with long summer holidays is that this is the only true holiday my children get. All the other breaks throughout the year are followed by exams or course work that has to be submitted so my children spend every break except the summer holiday doing school work. They need some time off just to relax - please leave summer alone

Val, Tunbridge Wells, England

I schooled overseas and until my early teens my school year ran from January to December with three, four-week, breaks in April, August and December. Moving to a six-week summer break was nice in theory but I found myself bored very quickly and missed my friends. Mind you, I had moved from single-sex to co-ed so that may account for the renewed interest in school!

Streetlamp, England

One consequence would be to create a very narrow "window" for summer holidays for parents with school age children. This would surely push up prices (perhaps encouraging parents to take their children out of school) and make it very difficult for those who have to coordinate their holidays with their colleagues. Whatever the educational benefits, this might make it unpopular.

Andrew Webber, Stowmarket, Suffolk

Surely a change, if any, should go in the opposite direction. The calendar should be amended so to have a longer summer term (7-8 weeks) and fewer breaks in between. This is fundamental to develop quality time with working parents in summer. I really feel and believe that a significant length of time off school in summer is crucial and critical to recharge batteries and have a change of scenery. England has already the shortest summer break in Europe and, really, what are the benefits? An even shorter summer break would only serve the interests of the travel industry (think how much more expensive would a summer holiday cost if every family were to travel in the space of four weeks instead of six weeks) and of those parents who shake at the thought of having to entertain too much their children.

Francesco, London

This is a good opportunity for cash strapped schools to make a little money. If childcare was affordable and available at all times, it would reduce parental anxiety and stress. If schools had drop in daycare/camp throughout the year, both child and parent would benefit. If children are pre-registered, parents could call the day before to drop their child for care. This type of care could also be available on weekends for a slightly higher price. Schools have existing facilities so its a no brainer. Inexpensive school lunches could be delivered by pre-selected local restaurants or children can bring their own lunch. If staff take older students on a field trip, they can use local busses free of charge. Although teachers salaries might need to be subsidized slightly, the cost of these programs can be kept to a minimum by careful planning like going to museums on a free day purchasing group discounted tickets, sharing facilities.

Clamdip, USA

The often quoted argument against long holidays simply doesn't stand up as far as the standard of education goes - almost all private schools have far longer holidays than state schools, and yet most of them achieve far higher GCSE and A level grades.

Burl Solomons, Bournemouth

What did work here a couple of years ago was when all of the public and private schools staggered their Easter/Spring holidays over a period of several weeks. This resulted in far fewer cars on the roads during this period and getting into work & home again was actually a pleasurable experience, rather than the usual angst filled journey.

Colin, Bristol, England

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