Magazine

End of term. Already?

  • 25 October 2010
  • From the section Magazine
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.

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.

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.

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