Long break: an endangered species? No

Would the six-term year benefit teachers or just erode their holiday time? Chris Keates and Chris Price argue it out.

The summer break in English state schools currently varies. In a few it is more than six weeks, in others a day or two over five weeks. It is often seven weeks or more in independent schools. In a few City Technology Colleges, which operate a five-term year, it covers only four weeks.

There are no published statistics about its length in different schools. And British governments, unlike the rest of Europe, have never wished to play any part in determining the length of the summer break, nor shown much interest in how long or short it should be.

Holidays are determined locally, either by local education authorities, schools or a mixture of both. There is currently no standard length for the school summer holiday in England.

The Commission on the School Year now has the benefit of more than two years' consultation on the issue and we have discovered that opinions differ.

A MORI poll conducted by the Commission in 2000 revealed a significant split which almost certainly also extends to the teaching profession: older and more affluent parents like a long summer break and poorer parents fear it. One working single parent told us that, to her, the long summer holiday was "lethal" - incurring childcare costs from which she did not recover for many months.

The introduction of five "training days" in the late 1980s uncoupled, for the first time, teachers' holidays from that of pupils', raising an important issue: what holidays and for whom? Children and young people - to give them a break? Teachers - as part of their holiday entitlement? Or parents - to allow them to play their part in their children's upbringing?

The Commission gave due weight to all views while making the needs of pupils its priority.

In seeking a more even pattern of terms and holidays, we concluded that a summer holiday substantially longer than the others was essential. That was one of the most compelling arguments for a six-term year.

We were also aware that radically altering the length of the summer holiday might affect the recruitment and retention of teachers, some of whom clearly regard it as a valuable perk. So we decided on a summer break which would never be less than five weeks and one day, with schools able to vary its length.

One way some do this is through the judicious use of "twilight time" for professional development. One "five-term year" school, Greensward in Essex, has lengthened its summer holiday from four to five weeks by using professional development time outside school hours in this way.

Over the past 40 years, the lengthening of half terms to a full week and the institution of training days have made the summer break in England shorter than it used to be. It is now shorter than it is in America and many European countries.

An "education, education, education" political phenomenon permeates all election campaigns, and advocates in the United States of year-round education see shorter holidays and more schooling as an answer to social and economic divisions.

I view this prospect of increasingly "schoolaholic" children and teenagers with some dismay. They deserve a proper balance between work and play.

Our six-term year is not a Trojan Horse through which a five-term year will develop. The establishment of machinery to advise LEAs will prevent fragmentation and offer greater standardisation. It will form a bastion against the further erosion of the summer break.

Chris Price chairs the Independent Commission on the Organisation of the School Year

Next week: should school science focus more on people and society?

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