Is it time to re-think the shape of the school year?

Now that the Easter holiday has ended for schools that continued the traditional pattern (a week before Easter and a week after) this year, it may be time to look again at the pattern of the school year. 

Because of the late Easter, around half of schools this year started the summer term on the day after Easter Bank Holiday Monday. 

Schools opting for the traditional pattern were given an extra day off on Tuesday 2 May as they would otherwise have missed out on the bonus of the Royal Wedding bank holiday. They returned to school on 3 May. 

For these schools, the first half of the summer term will be just 18 working days. Even for schools returning immediately after the Easter weekend, this crucial half-term for final exam preparation will be only 24 working days.

The school year is 38 weeks for the pupils, 39 for the teachers. Both long terms and short terms are very disruptive to learning patterns, so it would surely be sensible to divide the pupil year up more evenly, creating a better rhythm for the year. An obvious division would be into two ‘terms’ of seven weeks each (in the autumn up to Christmas) and four ‘terms’ of six weeks each.

Had that been the case in 2011, the terms after Christmas (terms 3 and 4 in new-speak) would have been 4 January to 11 February and 21 February to 1 April. Term 5 would then have started on 18 April, with long weekends off for Easter and May Day, providing six weeks of learning before the Whitsun break.

The year 2011 has been exceptional in that Easter Day has fallen on 24 April, just one day before the latest possible Easter date. Two years ago, Easter was as early as it can be – a full month earlier than Easter 2011. It is no wonder that the Christian calendar plays havoc with school term dates.

The situation may get worse, especially for parents with children at different schools. One of the freedoms of being an academy is that the governing body can decide the shape of the school year, including the dates of holidays and terms. With potentially thousands of academies, holiday dates could become chaotic.

There is something to be said for the French system of nationally directed school holidays, with the North, Middle and South of France taking co-ordinated turns in having earlier and later breaks in order not to put too much pressure on the holiday industry at key times, such as the February break when many French families like to go skiing. One year the North has the first of the three possible weeks, the Middle the next and the South the last; and they take turns in a nationally planned three-year cycle.

I was a member of the Local Government Association Commission on the Organisation of the School Year, which reported in 2000. Press reports at the time include these from the Independent and the Times Educational Supplement.

The rhythm of the school year – and it has a rhythm to it – is important to learning. The length of the summer holiday and the very long term from September to Christmas, with a break of only one week, each creates its own problems.

Recent research from the government links slower progress in the autumn term among primary age pupils to the long summer holiday “requiring pupils to retain their learning from the previous academic year over several weeks away from school.” So a break of five weeks, instead of six, would be an improvement.

November and early December are often difficult times for school discipline, with more strained relationships between tired teachers and tired pupils. A two-week break in October, as is already the case in some parts of the country, would be a great improvement.

 Some problems cannot be solved. Holiday dates in the Isle of Man are dictated by the dates of the TT races, those inNorthern Irelandby the long summer marching season. But it is time that the rest of us moved on from the 19th century agrarian calendar that has dominated the school year to something more sensible.

Based on the LGA Commission report, here is my suggestion:

Term 1                        7 weeks           Late-August to mid-October

Two-week break

Term 2                        7 weeks           End-October to around 21 December

Two-week break for Christmas and New Year

Term 3                        6 weeks           Early January to around 10 February

One-week break

Term 4                        6 weeks           Around 20 February to around 1 April

Two-week break

Term 5                        6 weeks           Mid-April to end-May

One-week break

Term 6                        6 weeks           early June to mid-July

Five-week break