The creeping advance of the six-term year means huge changes for the traditional family break. Mark Rowe reports

You used to know where you were with the traditional family holiday. Come July and August, most families would decamp somewhere around the Mediterranean. The only decision was which two out of the six weeks of the long stretch of summer holiday you would pick.

You used to know where you were with the traditional family holiday. Come July and August, most families would decamp somewhere around the Mediterranean. The only decision was which two out of the six weeks of the long stretch of summer holiday you would pick.

Yet the family holiday is coming under pressure from the gradual introduction of the six-term school year. Generally, this reduces the summer holiday by a week or more, and extends the October and May half terms, breaking the academic year into two blocks of seven-week terms before Christmas and four blocks of six-week terms after Christmas. Supporters argue that the six-term approach brings educational benefits by reducing the length of terms and ensuring that children are not away from school for so long. Another benefit is expected to be a reduction in absenteeism; term-time holidays, designed to avoid the peak prices for ferries, flights and trains, account for around 15 per cent of school absences.

So far, 12 of England's 154 local education authorities (LEAs) have introduced the six-term year, officially called the Standard School Year. Take-up is voluntary but, with a further 36 LEAs expected to join this autumn, more families will have to re-think when, and how, to take their annual break. LEAs that operate the new terms, or intend to introduce them, include 17 London boroughs, Bristol, Birmingham, Norfolk and Kent.

High prices have long been a bugbear for many parents, and Kate Calvert, the editor and founder of the family holiday website, fears that premiums may go even higher. "I suspect that most people will still want to go in the height of summer," she said. "This will make summer holidays even more expensive because the new terms will reduce the time you can go away and have good weather. And if the demand is there, prices will go up. That's how money works and it's hard to expect it to be any different without some kind of government intervention or subsidy."

However, Nigel Ragg, the head of marketing at Mark Warner, which offers family holidays around the Mediterranean, believes that summer prices should drop slightly to counterbalance the price rises that will emerge at other times of year. "I think there will be a levelling out of prices," he said. " We will still see higher prices at certain times of year because that's what economics dictate. Clearly, if you get two weeks in May when you get a lot of people wanting to go away, prices will reflect that. But prices in July and August will level out a bit because there won't be quite the level of demand. The number of people looking to go away won't really change. They're just going to do it at different times."

The new holidays will fit easily with the patterns that many families are already adopting, according to Mr Ragg. "Changes are already taking place and not because of the new school terms. More people are taking one week in the summer. People want to take their annual holidays throughout the year."

A great deal of head-scratching is taking place as the travel industry tries to work out just how things will change. The consensus is that, at least in the short term, any shifts in travel trends will be subtle rather than drastic. Destinations that are difficult in our summer but perfect for autumn, such as India are expected to grow in popularity for families, who may also be tempted to go to the east coast of the US or to Mexico or Brazil in October, simply because of the scope for a longer holiday.

The new terms may well encourage this trend, according to Lesley Harvey, products manager for British Airways Holidays. "It's getting harder and harder for parents to take their children out of school for holidays," she said. "It's really frowned upon. But this could help. Florida is a great family destination but really too hot for young children in the summer months, while the Caribbean is entering the hurricane season. October is perfect in Florida and May is ideal for the Caribbean, so we think people will be keen because they can now go for two weeks rather than one.

Thomson Holidays is keeping an eye on developments, though has yet to offer any deals tailored to reflect the six-term year. "We're watching closely, as the people who book now for 2006 are those who tend to book with school holidays in mind," said a spokesman, who said that Brazil was a destination that Thomson expected to become more popular with families. "If half-term holidays are longer it means people can travel further. Some people will go with the idea that you can get a cheaper holiday if you go out of the peak summer time. The weather will still probably be as good in many countries in May as in August, so you have the opportunity for a summer holiday in May."

But Ms Calvert is uncertain that the six-term approach will benefit families. "Unless the six-term year is introduced uniformly, it will be a nightmare if you have a child in one local authority and a second in another which still has the old terms," she said. "People still want good weather and to be sure of that you have to go to the Med in July and August. With the new term times, families will be crammed into an even smaller period. Southern Italy can be good in October but northern Italy can be really wild in autumn. If you want those beach holidays then you're looking at peak season.

"The new terms will also mean you lose those longer blocks of holidays and it will be difficult to take those longer exploratory holidays. I remember looking forward to those long, gaping summer holidays. If you only have four weeks, or even fewer, then that shadow at the end of the holiday feels a bit closer."

Yet Ms Calvert also believes the new terms will offer opportunities for families who shy away from the beach. "There is a shift towards intelligent and thinking holidays as opposed to just sitting on a beach. So perhaps the cooler times of year will appeal for visiting places such as the east of the US. May is a good time of year for sightseeing rather than relaxation. The cooler temperatures are good if you have more active children. It will benefit some destinations, such as Morocco in October, which fits more easily into two weeks than one."

Ultimately, though, sun sells, reckons Thomson Holidays. "In the end, summer comes along and you still want to go abroad," said the company's spokesman. "It's ingrained. Those are the times that still really sell."