Switch to a six-term school year moves closer

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The Independent Online

Plans to double the number of school terms and scrap the traditional Easter holiday moved a step closer yesterday.

The Local Government Association published the reforms which, if accepted by education authorities, could trigger the biggest shake-up of the school year for more than a century. But they received a mixed reaction from teachers and headteachers, with the second largest teachers' union claiming it would mean "a lot of pain for no gain".

Under the association's plans, schools in England would open in mid-August rather than September and the current three-term year would be divided into six terms punctuated by two-week holidays.

Supporters of the shake-up argue it will cut truancy and sickness caused by fatigue at the end of term. The association wants authorities to adopt the plan by autumn 2003. It believes the overhaul would eventually help hay fever sufferers if exams are moved forward to April and May and out of the high pollen season.

The two-week break to fall around Easter time would start at a fixed time each year, with schools closing for the Good Friday and Easter Monday holidays if those dates fell during term time.

The detailed plans were set out in a report by the Independent Commission on the Organisation of the School Year, which was set up two years ago by the association to examine how to improve the present system. The Commission's chairman, Chris Price, a former Labour MP, said Easter would fall during term time about twice in every ten years.

There would be two terms before Christmas, lasting around seven weeks each, and four after Christmas lasting six weeks each.

Schools would close for a two-week holiday in October, at least two weeks at Christmas, a week in February and more than five weeks in the summer.

There would also be five "floating" days that could be used to allow some schools to celebrate other religious festivals with holidays and take Eid, the Muslim festival or Diwali, a highlight of the Hindu calendar, as days off.

Mr Price said he was confident education authorities would support the recommendations and use their powers to change the dates of terms and holidays. "Our priority is to ensure the transition to a six-term school year is as smooth as possible," he said.

"It's going to involve joined-up government and a little bit of give and take by the various parties but we will get there in the end."

The plans received a mixed reaction from headteachers.

Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, said: "We already have six half terms and tinkering around with the system in the way suggested would have adverse knock-on effects which far outweigh the potential advantages."

Potential problems included "tourist truancy" – when parents take children on holiday during term time against schools' wishes – while fixing the Easter break could offend many churches, he added.

John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, sat on the commission that produced the proposals. But David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Headteachers, said he was unconvinced there was any need for a change.

From the home to the classroom ­ what the changes would mean

The parent:

The shorter but more frequent school holidays of a six-term year will make it easier for working parents to arrange child care, according to Alan Mount, the father of two daughters who have thrived under a regime of short terms and regular holidays. Mr Mount, a university lecturer, is also grateful Rachel, 13, and Naomi, 18, have had, "time to really recharge their batteries before they embark on each new term".

"It gives both pupils and teachers time to recap and rethink every six or seven weeks," he said. "As a parent it means that we don't have to wait until the end of one long term before we find out about our children's progress. Instead, we get regular updates.

"It also means that you don't have the problem of finding someone to look after them during a very long holiday in the summer. We also have more options about when to go on holiday as a family."

The pupil:

Sixthformer Aimee Acton has happily sacrificed a week of her summer holiday in return for shorter terms and more two-week breaks. Aimee, 17, an A-level student at the Leigh City Community College in Dartford, Kent, which already runs a six-term year, said: "When the new system first came in we were sceptical about whether it would affect our six-week holiday, but really we don't notice any difference.

"The main change is that I'm not under as much stress. Under the old system our teachers could seem very stressed by the end of a long term and that probably had an impact on our lessons. There used to be lots of absences before Christmas as pupils got ill and tired.

"Having a two-week break in October is brilliant. There's enough time to catch up with your studies and to relax as well. We have a week less holiday in the summer but you don't really notice that."

The teacher

Mike Moore, who teaches computer studies, believes the proposals would benefit him personally, by allowing him to go on cheaper off-peak holidays. But he is concerned it could exacerbate the teacher shortage.

Mr Moore, 54, who teaches at Harrop Fold School in Salford, said: "I would welcome the longer breaks every six or seven weeks. It would give me time for a bit of a holiday as well as to prepare for the next term. At the moment half term is an incredibly hectic week.

"Personally I would welcome this change but professionally I think it could cause tremendous problems.

"I am concerned that it could produce a big increase in absenteeism if parents take children out of school to go on holiday.

"We are so short of teachers at the moment and one of the main recruitment points that attracts people into the job is the long summer break."