Clarke backs calls for six-term school year

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The Government is backing plans for the most radical shake-up of the school year in more than 130 years of state education, The Independent can reveal today.

Charles Clarke, the Secretary of State for Education, has told local education authorities that he sees "positive merit" in the proposals, under which pupils will switch to a six-term year by September 2005.

The timing of his intervention is seen by local authority leaders as crucial - as most councils will be making their decisions over the changes within the next six weeks. They believe it will tip the balance in persuading wavering authorities to implement the scheme. Representatives of the 150 local education authorities in England voted unanimously in favour of the change last November.

But leaders of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers warned of strike action if there was any attempt to reduce the summer holidays, which they described as "the last perk of the teaching profession".

Under the shake-up, the school year would be divided into six terms of equal length. Council leaders want to bring GCSEs and A-levels forward to the end of the fifth term, which would be in May, to allow students to apply to universities after they have got their results.

A letter sent by Mr Clarke to Don Rule, an independent councillor in Herefordshire and part of a national delegation to the Secretary of State, says: "I am personally attracted to the arguments in favour of standardising the length of school terms. For our part, we see positive merit in the proposals and would want to lend our support to the debate."

Mr Clarke's intervention is the first time any government minister has come off the fence over proposals to shake up the school year.

Previous secretaries of state for education - such as David Blunkett and Estelle Morris - have always insisted that it was a matter solely for local education authorities.

Chris Price, the former Labour MP and vice-chancellor of Leeds Metropolitan University who headed an independent inquiry into the school year for the local education authorities, said: "This is an absolutely clear statement and does the trick. I very much hope it will clear the way for a big push in favour of the proposals over the next six weeks." Council leaders want the changes to be introduced by September 2005.

Supporters of the reforms say that the introduction of more frequent breaks will make it more difficult for travel companies to increase sharply the prices of foreign holidays during school vacations.