It's class warfare! Councils reject Gove's plan to cut summer holiday

Minister's argument that shorter breaks would benefit children is dismissed by councils

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The Independent Online

The Education Secretary's calls for a radical overhaul of the school year and a cut in the long summer holiday are being ignored by local authorities.

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A survey of 130 English councils by The Independent has found that only one authority, Nottingham, planned to change the current term structure according to Michael Gove's proposals.

This is despite evidence that the existing system can lead to a decline in children's progress, particularly among those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Three others – Hull, East Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire – are consulting on the issue. Forty-six of those surveyed, including Manchester, Liverpool, Bristol and some London boroughs, declared they would not consider change at present. The rest said they had not heard of any plans to do so.

However, there appears to be growing support for Mr Gove's proposals among academies and free schools. He has urged them to use their new freedoms to implement the change.

It raises the prospect of a two-tier system which could cause problems for parents with children at different schools operating different calendars.

A recent survey by the Schools Network, which has more than 5,000 member schools including more than 1,400 academies, found that 35 per cent of first respondents were considering or had implemented a new term structure.

Bill Watkin, operational director of the Schools Network, said the long summer break was felt by some to lead to a decline in learning as teachers were forced to spend time re-engaging the class before progress could be made.

"There is an increasing body of schools that are experiencing positive outcomes by attempting different term structures. Academies are innovative and creative organisations that will look for new and different strategies to sustain high standards," he said.

A four, five or even six-term system would reduce the summer holiday to four weeks, leaving schoolchildren in England with one of the shortest breaks in Europe. But it is seen as a potential vote winner for working parents who struggle to cover the six-week holiday. Nottingham City council has already made the decision to switch to a five-term year, and shorten its summer holiday, after success at the local Djanogly academy, which has a similar system.

Nottingham's schools will start back on 28 August from 2013. This would give schools extra time off in October and May, while the summer holidays would start at the same time, at the end of July.

Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said it was time to consider changing the school year which created an "unhealthy work pattern" for teachers and risked damaging learning. He said: "I understand, however, that this argument does not have universal agreement and others will point out that routines have been built up around the current pattern so that every 'holiday' includes a substantial period of administration and lesson-planning for teachers."

Critics of the current system have long complained that it dates back to when children needed to take time off to help their families with the harvest. Local authorities tried and failed to overhaul the system a decade ago after failing to reach agreement on a new system and running into opposition from the teachers' union the NASUWT.

Free schools introduced by Mr Gove have also embraced change.

Free School Norwich – one of 96 free schools set to be open by next year – operates six terms with a two-week holiday between each and a four-week holiday in August.

Rachel Wolf, director of the New Schools Network, said the changes in Norwich had already proved highly popular with parents. "Longer school days, longer years, and differently structured days/terms are common innovations among free schools. There's no hard and fast rule because they all do things in a different way," she said.

A Department for Education spokesman welcomed the findings. "The fact is that we have inherited a school year designed for children in the 1900s, not the 21st century, so it is right that heads are seizing the initiative and changing it."