It is hard to see quite what political advantage Michael Gove anticipates in ‘freeing’ every head in every school to set term dates on an independent basis. He is, of course, desperate – and rightly so – to raise standards but how will this latest policy help?
What the change of policy will do, if heads actually do it as opposed to continuing to collaborate (a sort of unofficial education provider cartel?) within an area, is to make life very difficult for parents who have children in more than one school. Booking holidays is already often tricky for families with children in both the maintained and the independent sector – which has always been able to choose its own term dates. If every school does its own thing it could mean that sometimes children within a family will have no days off in common at all, especially around Easter when some schools take all their holiday before the event and some after.
An unintended consequence could be, therefore, that parents are more likely to take one or more children out of school for family holidays. On the other hand it will actually benefit families if there are fewer ‘peak’ times in the year and airlines, holiday companies and so on have to stop charging exorbitant prices for the late May bank holiday week, for instance, which until now has been a national half term week.
A number of schools and local authorities have, in recent years, experimented with five, six and seven-term years with Christmas as the starting point. Blocks of, say, five eight-week terms separated by two weeks off and with four weeks in the summer is a way of working which makes sense. It means pupils are never away from school for too long and it is much easier to plan work evenly without the traditional end-of-term wind down which bedevils the three term pattern, with its roots in the hunting and racing seasons for the upper classes and the harvest for everyone else. And if the two week break doesn’t happen to coincide with Easter or other public holidays then you simply take the bank holidays off and then continue the term.
There could also be a major advantage in that it would force examination boards to rethink the timing of public exams which could, at last, allow students to apply for college and university with their results in their hands rather than having the whole process having to be provisional as is now. And that would be a major victory for common sense.
But I doubt that any of it will come to pass. There is an elephant in the room, if not a whole herd of them: teachers and their vigorously protected extended summer break which they seem to regard as a sacrosanct entitlement. Their unions will fight tooth and nail against change as they always do. And they usually win, to the detriment of children’s learning. Over the years, the powerful education industry has seen off many an attempt to improve schools and pupils’ learning – and many an education secretary. Remember Gillian Shepherd’s determination to counteract ‘communication by grunt’, David Blunkett’s ‘literacy hour’ and the handwringing about standards by people such as Charles Clarke, Ruth Kelly and Alan Johnson? Ask yourself if any of it dented the complacency of teachers’ spokespeople or made one iota of difference to teaching and learning.
If I were a betting woman my money would be on the teaching unions to stop any significant changes to the school year, rather than on Gove to make them stick. And that will cost the Education Secretary political credibility – again.