THE WRITING'S ON THE BLACKBOARD

There's a revolution brewing in the classroom. Five-term years, longer working days, even weekend lessons - these will be appearing shortly in a school near you. How is this going to affect your child? And how will it affect the rest of us?
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The Independent Culture
IT STILL happens whenever I sit on the grass and fall asleep in the sunshine, especially if there is a book in my hand. I wake with a jolt, gripped by the momentary panic that if the sun is shining I ought to be revising. It is 20 years since I last took an academic exam, but something has been burnt deep into my psyche by all that education. When the summer sun nears its zenith it is exam time.

The internal psychological calendars of the next generation might not be so indelibly scarred. A move is afoot to bring the exam season forward, out of the drowsy days of hayfever and antihistamine - to April, so that universities can select on actual results rather than forecasts. It is only part of a ferment of educational experimentation which is about to grip the nation, bringing revolutions to schools, and sending ripples throughout society as a whole.

Government approval has been given to pilot projects which will introduce a five-term year in schools in Croydon, a four-term one in Middlesbrough, a 50 per cent longer school day in Birmingham, weekend schooling in Newcastle, putting every child in Barnsley on the Internet, and a host of projects elsewhere to set up breakfast and evening lessons, homework clubs and master-classes in which bright primary children can go to secondary school for certain subjects. The plan is to look at the shape of the school day and year we have taken for granted for so long to see if it can be improved.

"At the moment the school year is daft," said the new education minister, Margaret Hodge, speaking when she was still chair of the Commons Select Committee on education. "It was framed at a time when children were expected to help with the harvest and it needs to be modernised. We now know that during the long summer holiday children forget a lot of what they've been taught, and every parent knows they get bored. Petty crime tends to rise towards the end of the school holidays. Teachers get knackered during term time, sickness is high, they're exhausted. It is also time that schools took into account the changing nature of families: while women with children used to stay at home, most mothers with school-age children now work and struggle to manage during the holidays."

The ramifications go beyond schools and those households which have children attached. So many of the practices and procedures of our society are heavily intertwined with what goes on in our schools that the changes there will affect us all - at work, at play and in moving between the two. But in finding out exactly how, consulting the experts is not much help.

"Changes to the school year would have a knock-on effect on industry, employers and parents who already struggle to find adequate care arrangements. This will increase the pressure on them," says Angela Baron, policy officer of the Institute of Personnel Management. But teaching unions predict exactly the opposite problem: too great a response to parents' wishes and a diminution in the quality of education. "More and more parents see school as a form of child care and are encouraged to by the Government with all its summer schemes and after-school clubs," Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters and Union of Women Teachers, has complained.

Ask how radical changes to school term-times might affect the way we take our holidays and you receive similarly contradictory intelligence. "It would be disastrous," according to Keith Betton, of the Association of British Travel Agents. "It's tough enough now to fit everyone in. Around five million of the 16m Britons who go away every year do so in the school summer holidays. There's only a certain number of beds in these holiday destinations and if the summer holiday was cut to four weeks there is no doubt that prices would go up." But Ed Sims, marketing director of the tour operator, Unijet, feels exactly the opposite. "It would extend the season, which is at present ludicrously concentrated into a six-week time period. It would be a great opportunity."

Consult the motoring world about the implications for traffic congestion and you get your contradictions from the same man. "About 20 per cent of car traffic on the roads at 8.50am is school traffic at present," says Andrew Howard, head of road safety at the AA. "A longer day might spread those peaks - or it might mean that some children who now don't go by car because of the traffic might start to."

So what does the hard evidence say? I rang Margaret Hodge's office and asked her researchers to run me through it. "We haven't actually done any research," one of her chaps said brightly. "She was just floating a few ideas." Based on what? "You'll have to ask her, but she's in the Education department now." So I rang the Department for Education and Employment, where Hodge is now a junior minister. Could they give me a briefing? "We can't do that," said a stern civil service type. "If you've got a specific question we'll answer that." Do you have any evidence for suggesting that any of this is a good idea was, it seemed, an insufficiently specific question. Two more phone calls went unanswered. So I set out to discover for myself.

I SHOULD have guessed from the hotel that this was no normal school. I had rung Dixons College in Bradford, one of the few comprehensives in the country which already operates a five-term year, to ask where I might stay in the area when I visited them. The school's security guard recommended somewhere nearby. The Cedar Court Hotel turned out to be one of those massive roadside monuments to the Nineties Tesco Toytown school of architecture. But it was upmarket - a hotel of spectral efficiency for the modern businessman, where the bacon is served trimmed of its fat, the in-house health centre offers non-surgical face-lift massages and there are adult movies on the pay-TV. "We have a special rate for Dixons College," said the svelte young receptionist. "Corporate."

The next morning the taxi picked its way through the Bradford cityscape, with its easy accommodation of past and present, occidental and oriental. "Big screen. Food all day. Monster meals at prices that won't scare you" said the banner outside the Craven Heifer pub. "Punjab Carpet and Furniture Retailers" said the sign on a storefront nearby. Many of the former milltown's once blackened buildings have been cleaned and are now a soft honeycomb colour. Dixons College, on the other hand, is a smart modern building of rust-red brick and green tubular steel, whose sweeps of low shrubbery add to the impression that the visitor is entering the headquarters of a successful medium-sized business.

Inside the image is augmented. A large airy atrium is dominated by a gigantic weeping fig. The floor is of polished sprung pine. On the walls are hung symbols of endorsement from the world of business, with plaques from organisations such as Investor in People, Young Enterprise and even a Charter Mark. Alongside is a photograph of the college principal, John Lewis, at one of his regular meetings with Stanley Kalms, the head of the high-street retailer Dixons - which sponsors the school under the last government's City Technology College scheme.

Dixons is the school of the future. Technology here does not just mean science - it is used all across the curriculum. The college has 300 PCs, all Pentium standard and all networked throughout the college and permanently connected to the Internet. It also has video conferencing links on which schools - in three different countries - share a teacher with particular skills. Its blackboards are in fact electronic "whiteboards": teachers write on them by using a pen-mouse attached to a computer, which then projects onto the board. So it may not be surprising that this inner- city school has received an outstanding Ofsted report, excellent GCSE exam results and has a truancy rate of 0.3 per cent compared with 4 per cent for the rest of the city. Almost three-quarters of its pupils go on to university and very few of the rest leave without a job.

"It was a brand new college - we were starting from scratch," says the principal, sitting in his office in the management suite beneath a framed copy of the college's mission statement. Previously he was head of a comprehensive in Cheshire, and had long been convinced that the standard three-term year didn't work. "What happens after Christmas is dictated entirely by Easter, which can fluctuate by up to six weeks. So the spring and summer terms can often be excessively long or very short." There is the dead time at the end of the summer, particularly after GCSEs when half the school population has actually left and those who haven't want to stop working too. Then there is the long, exhausting autumn term. "End- of-term-itis is particularly bad then. There are all sorts of problems in the last third of the term - poorer concentration, misbehaviour in class, bad inter- personal relations between children and teachers, who are running out of steam."

So when the college opened in 1990, Lewis looked at the possibility of four terms of 10 weeks - but found that the system was not feasible without working over Christmas or throughout August. It also only allowed a half- term of one week, and over the years Lewis had noticed that teachers did not return refreshed from a one-week break. Teaching is a histrionic business with constant stress and pressure. "They don't appear to recover after a week whereas after two they come back fresh and reinvigorated."

Then he hit upon the idea of five terms, each eight weeks long with a two-week break between. It fitted the calendar neatly, with two-week holidays in October, at Christmas, in March and in May. "If you start with the fixed point of Christmas you have four weeks in the summer - and you return half-way through August as the GCSE results come out and students have to decide on their options for the sixth form. Five equal- length terms also means that a modular-based curriculum fits in easily."

It does mean that they work a week longer than other schools - 39 weeks is the normal school year. And they also work a longer day. Teachers are contracted from 8am to 5pm, and although classes officially end at 3.30pm, the premises are open to students until the staff leaves.

All of this goes down well with parents. "For me as a working mother it's been a lot easier," said Pat Inglis, who is a parent governor at Dixons. "It's consistent. You can plan better. You know when the holidays are going to be without having to go through their schoolbag to see if there are any letters they've forgotten to give you. The terms being the same length seems to help the kids pace their work."

Even those who have had to juggle the new and the old systems at the same time are impressed. Helen Hall is a nursery assistant at a school with three terms, while her children Jennifer and Martyn are in the Dixons' five-term system. "It's easier to find a child-minder for four weeks in a row than six or seven." Even booking a holiday is easier, according to another parent, Janet Hunt: "You can go to the Canary Islands in March or October for pounds 170 a head - a lot cheaper - and the weather's fine." Plus, the school's longer day means that a single mother can drop her children off on her way to work and know that after school they can stay till 5pm in games or music clubs or in the library doing their homework. "I don't see any advantages to the old system now," said Pat. "I would never go back."

WHAT IS education for? That is the question which keeps raising its head when you consider how effective these school reforms can be. For education conflates a number of tasks. It is about child-minding. It prepares the workforce of the future. It stimulates individual fulfilment. It transmits a national culture and morality. Some of these tasks are inevitably in tension with one another.

"In one sense, the education service is a vast car park where you put children to keep them off the streets until they are old enough to get a job," says Sir Christopher Ball, who is Chancellor of the University of Derby and patron of the Royal Society of Arts' Campaign for Learning. At a time when both men and women are working increasingly longer hours, 65 per cent of all women work (most of them full-time), and those who work part-time are working more hours too, there is significant pressure to give an even higher priority to this child-minding role. "Schools aren't particularly work-friendly," says Angela Baron. "They are based on an outmoded view of society where one parent was the bread-winner and the other didn't work. The needs of working parents must be integrated into school life."

There are those who argue that the changes this requires can be good for children. "Children learn in a variety of ways - the more variety there is in their day, the better," says Linda Kerr, a chartered psychologist who has worked for 20 years in schools in Britain, Canada, Turkey and Holland. In Canada, schools open for a much longer day - from 7am to 5.30pm. Four hours of that is on-site childcare run by a private company for which parents pay heftily. "Breakfast is served from 7am, after which there is a before-school activity, and when school ends at 3.30pm there is another session of ice-skating, computing, crafts, music, dance. It is a day of greater variety and it means less driving around of children during the day. The Canadian system is very supportive of working parents."

What parents want should be the chief determinant, according to James Tooley, the professor education at Newcastle University. Reforms will only work if they reflect existing changes in society. They can only follow, not lead. He wants to see education become much more like other areas of our lives with strong brand names - Tesco primaries, Sainsbury grammar schools as well as Dixons technology colleges. "I lived in Brixton for 10 years, but though it is a poor area the Tesco and McDonald's there is as good as any other of their branches," he said. "Why should we tolerate poor quality in the public sector? Why have sink schools when there are no sink supermarkets?"

Tooley wants to see British schools run by companies like Edison Project, which has taken over 25 schools in the United States, replaced 90 per of their staff, redesigned curricula and introduced an eight-hour school day. Right-wing educationists, such as America's Lewis Perelman, agree. "Knowledge is the key factor in modern competitiveness," Perelman says. "Why should we leave the government in charge of the central thing in the economy, when it has pulled out of everything else?"

But here the ideology of consumerism bumps up against its limits. For the education of children is something greater and wider than simply what parents want. The idea that parents are consumers implies that children are somehow merely at the disposition of their parents. Whereas in fact, all societies use education as a mechanism for the transmission of accepted values, which is why in the end governments cannot keep out of it.

In any case, so many of the demands made by parents are a reflection of the increasingly onerous pressures placed upon them by the world of work. Next month the latest Institute of Management's annual "Quality of Work/Life Survey" will be published. It will show an even worse picture than last year's, in which a study of 5,000 managers showed that 41 per cent work at weekends, two-thirds work at home in the evening and 82 per cent work longer hours than their contract stipulates.

All of which argues for longer rather than shorter school holidays, according to Cary Cooper, professor of occupational psychology at UMIST. "Holidays are now more important than ever before, as people are working harder and longer in ever more insecure jobs," he said. Families spend less time together and when they are with each other they are in transmit mode - "I have a meeting at eight" - and not on the "receive" wavelength which is necessary to emotional exchange. "It's not just parents - more is expected of students today, with SAT tests at seven, 11 and 14. In the summer kids should be learning things other than cognitive skills - managing leisure time, building social skills, re-linking with families."

Instead, what we are seeing - with two out of every three parents working - is children left increasingly to their own resources. Children are becoming more independent and more self-centred. This may be what we, as a society, want. But it may not. Either way, we need to become more conscious of the process - and the role education has in shaping it.

CHANGE may not be as imminent as many people, including the government, hope. New Labour has established what they called Education Action Zones (EAZs) to prioritise new ideas in the nation's most deprived areas. Twelve EAZs - in Barnsley, Blackburn, Croydon, Hereford, Grimsby, Lambeth, Leicester, Newcastle upon Tyne, Newham, North Somerset, Middlesbrough and Salford/ Trafford - will come into operation next month, with another dozen in January.

But although all these areas put in successful bids to come up with "new and exciting ways" to raise standards in disadvantaged areas, the signs are that - now they have got the cash - the more radical initiatives have already been put on the back-burner. Croydon mentioned the possibility of a four-term year in its EAZ bid, but it has now ruled out the idea. "The education committee decided it would cause too many practical problems for families with siblings at schools in neighbouring boroughs," said Roseanne Simpson, the group director of Croydon's quality development department.

Something similar happened at Plymouth. "We had a reference to a four- or five-term year in our initial bid, but it's not part of the plan we're drawing up now we've got the status," said the city's director of education, Sohail Faruqi. "The five-term year is a dead issue. When I canvassed head teachers, they felt it would only work if it was introduced nationally. Perhaps when the EAZ has bedded down we might return to the subject. Personally I'm in favour of it; I think the three-term year will go eventually, but who knows when?"

Those in the education world will hardly be surprised. An attempt to introduce the four-term year was made in 1991. It failed. The Local Government Association carried out a consultation with education authorities, exam boards, universities, teachers' unions, the CBI and TUC, the tourist industry, the Mothers' Union and the Women's Institute. "Almost every group was split right down the middle," said its education policy officer, Ivor Widdison. "On paper the arguments were quite good, but there was enormous resistance to change. The perception was not that it would cause ripples through wider society but big waves."

At the Institute of Education, Chris Watkins laughed ironically at the withdrawal of the more radical proposals. "It was a completely rational response to the current 'bid and grant' culture. The action zones were encouraged to be radical and different, so they put in bids which were," he said, "but what has actually been announced isn't that different from previous approaches."

So in Plymouth they are planning to extend the use of school premises into the evening for joint use by pupils and the local community. In Croydon, they are encouraging projects where private firms install computers in schools for use in commercial courses in the evenings, but which the schools use without payment during the day. In Middlesbrough they are introducing a "three- session day" - with evening master-classes, homework clubs and adult education courses to keep schools open until as late as 9pm.

There are, in any case, those who see the answers elsewhere than in a change of timetable or calendar. Professor Tim Brighouse, the chief education officer for Birmingham, is vice-chairman of the Government's standards taskforce and is a close adviser to ministers on educational initiatives. "Instead of changing structures we need to enrich what is already there - with strategies like having one week of the year when all Year Eight are pursuing French intensively," he says. We also need to think beyond school. "Kids are only at school for 15 per cent of their waking lives between birth and the age of 16. Homework clubs can extend that to 17 per cent. What about the rest?" In Birmingham he has launched the University of the First Age, which offers weekend and holiday courses in things such as photography, dance and local history. This summer it has 200 11-year- olds learning reading through music, movement and games in a holiday programme.

He is not alone. "We also have to get away from the idea that more means better," says Chris Watkins. "We have to be wary of the process of 'school intensification'. We have to get rid of the idea that time plus school equals learning. Attendance does not guarantee learning. Control of time isn't the key thing."

WHEN I was 11 and in the final year of primary school I had a teacher who called me Red Herring. This was because I was always asking allegedly irrelevant questions. I remember being slightly aggrieved at this, but in the main found it perplexing. It was years before I cracked the conundrum. I was, I have to confess, an annoyingly precocious pupil - I used to ask at the end of each history lesson what we would be doing the next week so I could go and read about it. The truth was, of course, that the questions were not irrelevant. It was just that poor old Mr Eason didn't know the answers.

It is a commonplace in discussing the modern timetable to brand it as out-of-date, based as it is on the old agrarian calendar and the need for children to help with the harvest. There was more than that to it. The process was augmented, in the industrial north at least, by the system of "wakes week" when the town's mills and factories underwent their summer maintenance shutdown and everyone went on holiday at the same time - and often enough to the same place, usually Blackpool.

Education is often a proxy for the rest of society and reflects its priorities and systems. There was, indeed, something of the model of the factory about the education system we inherited from the 19th century, with its children packed into serried proximity, facing the teacher at the front who, in the old Platonic model, dispensed to the receptacle which was the pupils from the fount of his or her knowledge. In the intervening years, of course, the business world has rethought the factory, but not much mainstream attention has been given to how we rethink the school in this age of hot-desking and contract culture. The timetable modernisers are giving it a go. But are they too late?

Thinking back to the beleaguered Mr Eason (to whom, in passing, many thanks), his problem was that he was fixed in a culture of control. How much more inappropriate that model is today: as the industrial age is over, the service age has assumed dominance and the age of information rushes like an electronic tidal wave over our heads. Today the knowledge- base in society doubles every four years. But knowledge isn't information - it's the meanings you make from information and experience. "Once schools go on-line, children can access quantities of information beyond the abilities of most of us to grasp. This will challenge teachers unless their role changes significantly," says Valerie Bayliss of the Royal Society for Arts' Redefining Schools project. Teachers must be ready to say they don't know the answer to a question, but make finding the answer together the focus of the lesson.

Redefining Schools tries to determine how education should look in 10 years' time. "We have to move away from linking the length of the school day with the presence of the teacher. We should de-link pastoral and teaching roles. Schools can be open all day but all the teachers don't have to be there all the time. Nor do pupils; they can negotiate their attendance requirements and manage their own distance-learning programmes," says Valerie Bayliss. The other RSA thinker, Sir Christopher Ball, concurs: "New learning technologies mean that we no longer have to herd children together in classrooms. We could have a system where children spend half a day at school and then half a day at home, linked by cable and computer, supported by their parents who may be working alongside them."

There are those waiting to check this reverie. Don't forget that school is also about socialisation, reminds Cary Cooper: "Sometimes schooling needs to be slow to ensure that social and emotional skills keep pace with cognitive ones. Kids' social networks are important."

But if, for that reason, the idea of extensive home-working is fanciful, something similar is already in evidence back at Dixons College in Bradford, where teachers use video-conferencing to bring pupils in Ireland and Holland into their lessons on computer-aided design; and, conversely, Dixons' pupils take 'A'-level lessons in advanced electronics via a link with a college in Whitby which has a teacher with the requisite skills. Technology like that is already making the idea of pupils travelling from one school to another for master-classes in special subjects sound old-fashioned. "Accelerated learning can be done through computer programmes individually customised for each pupil," said John Lewis at Dixons. "Technology takes the lessons to them."

The future, it seems, may be nearer than we think. But from what that future offers, we must choose - in education, as in so much else in life - those systems which enrich and stimulate, rather than those which subjugate our children to the spurious urgencies of the modern world. Get the values right, one wise old teacher said to me, and the structures will look after themselves. !

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