The most pressing and important issue for the Government, local education authorities, teachers and schools is to tackle the recruitment and retention crisis in teaching, and focus on the excessive workload and pupil indiscipline which contribute to it.
Valuable resources are being dissipated by attempts to change the pattern of school terms and undermine the continuation of the much-needed long summer break.
Discussions on the pattern of the school year surface from time to time. These debates invariably rehash tried, tested and rejected arguments.
Recently a commission established by the Local Government Association advocated the introduction of a six-term year. Although this idea has slightly more to commend it than previous proposals, notably those for a five-term year, it is not without significant difficulties. Its potential to act as a catalyst to reduce the summer break by enabling individual schools to set its length would be especially problematic. Therefore, when such proposals emerge, teachers need to be extremely vigilant.
There is little or no empirical evidence that a six-term year will raise educational standards. Advocates seek to make it more attractive by claiming it will alleviate teacher stress, but this argument does not bear close scrutiny.
Huge reorganisation of existing systems would be required to support the change, including the timetable and preparation for public examinations, revision of a school's whole planning cycle and review of the curriculum. It is self-evident that this would increase workload rather than reduce stress.
It is argued that the real benefits are long term. More evenly-spaced, longer breaks throughout the year, made possible by shortening the summer break, would be of greater benefit to stressed teachers.
This is a dubious argument. A long-hours culture dominates schools and the more likely scenario is a greater expectation and increased pressure on teachers to spend a significant proportion of the extended break undertaking more school-related activities. Consequently the summer break will have been shortened, its recuperative benefits eroded and working hours increased.
Fortunately most teachers who have been consulted by LEAs so far on such changes have rejected them. Aware that teachers are conscious of the potential to reduce their holiday entitlement by stealth, advocates are now presenting themselves as the guardians of the summer break. This is more than a touch ironic as it is proposals to alter term patterns which pose the threat in the first place.
Teachers should not be fooled. Once there has been a formal change to the summer break, however small, the established pattern is broken and the precedent set for further change.
Proposals should continue to be rejected at local level. Although teachers'
holidays and the pattern of terms are inextricably linked, holidays are a conditions-of-service issue. Discussion should take place at national level between teacher unions, employers and government.
They are not a matter for debate with parents, local businesses, pupils, holiday firms or anyone with a passing interest as some LEAs seem to think. What other group of workers has their pattern of leave entitlements thrown open to a consultative ballot of clients, customers, patients and their families?
Unless the attack on the summer break is resisted, the last remnant of support which enables teachers to survive the ever-increasing demands of the job will disappear.
Chris Keates is deputy general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers