Why shorter holidays are good for kids

The school year has come under scrutiny before, but is once more being thrust into the limelight. Would a four- or five-term year be more sensible than the current system?
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Reforming the curriculum is one thing, but tackling the school calendar is quite another; the three-term year is so well ingrained in the national consciousness that it seems almost as immutable as the seasons. But calls for change have rumbled along since the Seventies, and have just received a high-profile boost from Margaret Hodge, chair of the influential commons education select committee, when she declared in several speeches her commitment to changing to a four or five-term year.

"At the moment the school year is daft," she says. "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 very bored. Petty crime tends to rise towards the end of the summer holidays."

But it's not just the pupils who suffer: "Teachers get knackered during term time, sickness is high, they're exhausted, less effective. We need a new deal that spreads out their workload more evenly and makes it more manageable."

She argues that it is also time schools took into account the changing nature of families; while women used to stay at home, most mothers with school-age children now work, and struggle to manage during the holidays. "We're not asking teachers to be glorified childminders, but I do think schools have to fit in more with people's lives. With a shorter summer break parents don't have to plan for six weeks' child care, and they don't have to holiday at peak times when it's so expensive."

Hodge is not a lone maverick. Encouraged by the positive experience of the City Technology Colleges (CTCs), which pioneered the five-term year, the Local Government Association (LGA) recently wrote to all local authorities asking for volunteers to pilot a similar calendar.

"We actually do think there is a connection of how you run the school year with raising standards," says Graham Lane, chair of the LGA's education committee. "With three long terms you get a lot more sickness and illness, and everyone ends up shattered. There is also this dead time at the end of the summer, particularly after GCSEs when year 11 has gone, and years nine and 10 think they should have gone as well."

Five terms that break the year into equal chunks would solve many of these problems, he believes: "Spreading out the holidays would keep up the momentum, and improve learning because the kids would get a decent break after each eight weeks and come back more refreshed."

This is not the LGA's first foray into reforming the school timetable. In 1990 it carried out a wide consultation with educational and other community bodies on the feasibility of a four-term year. The result was a 50-50 split in opinion. With the long summer holidays such a fixed part of people's lives, the main reservations were simply straightforward resistance to change.

Whether Margaret Hodge and the LGA will get a more enthusiastic response this time round is debatable. At the moment only a handful of local authorities have agreed to consult on a five-term year with their schools and local community, and a number have already decided they currently have neither the time nor energy to attempt it.

And they will have an even harder job convincing the teachers' unions. The National Union of Teachers, for instance, believes the upheaval for schools and the community would just be too great. "People are criticising the current school pattern on the grounds that it grew out of children needing to help with the harvest," says Doug McAvoy, general secretary of the NUT. "But the point is that everything else has grown up around that - the timing of exams, applications to university and, more recently, testing and assessment."

Any change would affect a lot of people, he believes, and not just in schools. "Industry and commerce knows the three-term pattern and works to it - the repercussions for the travel industry, for instance, could be enormous." Nor would it be particularly convenient for parents. "They have established patterns, and fiddling with those would cause a lot of disruption. If you're going to go for such a substantial change with such widespread implications, you really do need to prove it's for good solid educational reasons - but no one has really come up with any to date."

Indeed, evidence about the effects of the long summer break is inconclusive. US and Canadian studies do show that achievement test scores decline over the summer, a finding confirmed by the evaluation of the summer literacy schools by the National Foundation for Educational Research. When the NFER compared May SATs results with those for similar tests in September, it found a significant decline in achievement - the problem, however, was that the decline was similar both for children who didn't attend summer school and for those that did.

Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters and Union Of Women Teachers (NAS/UWT) thinks the real impetus for reform is the needs of working parents. But it's not the job of schools to accommodate them, he says: "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. But schools can't exist just so parents can go out to work. Parents have got to be prepared to spend time at home helping raise their kids."

Even the success of the CTCs with a different format for the school year is unlikely to cut much ice. "Five terms may well have worked for them, but if you look at the amount of money and resources that have been pumped into these schools, it's not surprising," he says. "If that's the kind of funding deal the Government wants to do, we might be a lot more keen."

Perhaps the real concern of the NAS/UWT is that reform of the school year will provide a piggyback for longer work contracts for teachers - its members are expected to uphold a motion condemning any changes to the school year at their annual conference at Easter. For the many who feel that the profession has been under siege from all sides over recent years, any challenge to their holiday entitlement could be the last straw that finally provokes a strike.

`Eight weeks is the optimum'

Dixons College in Bradford has been operating a five-term year since it opened in 1990. Its 1,100 pupils attend for eight weeks each term with a two-week break in between. They have a four to five-week holiday in the summer.

While he was head of a secondary school in Cheshire, Dixon principal John Lewis had already come to the conclusion that the three-term year didn't make any educational sense. "Most schools build their year around Easter, which can fluctuate by many weeks from one year to the next. If it's early, you get a long summer term, if it's late, the term is much shorter. The autumn term tends to be very long and the teachers and children become very jaded."

When he set up Dixons, Lewis looked at the alternatives, but rejected the idea of four terms of 10 weeks. "Ten weeks is an awfully long time without a break, and if you start with Christmas holiday fixed and try to build from there, you end up working right through the summer. Five seemed much the best solution.

"The obvious advantage is that you get terms of the same length so everyone can pace themselves throughout the year, and eight weeks is the optimum time for children to be able to concentrate and for teachers to teach with enthusiasm." He believes half-terms are of little value, especially in the autumn: "A week is just not long enough, you come back just as you feel you're getting a holiday."

Phil Mclear, whose two sons attend Dixons, agrees: "In other schools the kids return from half-term still tired as if they hadn't had a break at all. With two weeks off at the end of every term, they get a chance to recharge their batteries and come back refreshed."

Malcolm Hardy, who has two sons at the school, initially found the five- term system a bit strange. "At first it was a bit of a shock to the system after the traditional holiday cycles, but we've actually found it very beneficial and far less disruptive to their studies. When the kids were going to different schools, we used to find that when they'd been off for the summer holiday, it was very difficult for them to get back into it again."

He also believes a five-term year makes life simpler for parents. "In my experience a lot of schools work their holidays around the head's skiing arrangements rather than the convenience of the children. This is much easier for parents because you know exactly what is going to happen and can plan well ahead."

Not to mention the money that can be saved by taking your holidays off season. The Roper family, whose son and daughter both attend Dixons, went to the Canary Islands in February and in October are off to Greece. "It's costing us the same for both holidays as for one in the summer," says John Roper, "And in the summer we can stay here and enjoy the good weather."