The long summer holiday, a cornerstone of school life for hundreds of years, is under threat from radical plans to reform the academic calendar.
Seven-week breaks and uneven terms could be consigned to the history books if proposals to pilot a five-term year win support. Graham Lane, chair of the Local Government Association's education committee, will float the idea at the LGA's conference later this month. If the plans are approved, schools in some local authorities could begin the five-term experiment with effect from September next year.
"We should have a serious look at this," Mr Lane says. "The present system is just not conducive to learning."
His proposals follow the successful introduction of a five-term model in some city technology colleges where both teachers and staff have happily converted to regular eight-week terms separated by two-week breaks with a four-week summer holiday.
"The great advantage is that it still gives teachers a decent summer break but breaks up terms much more equally," Mr Lane says. "This would make the learning process much easier and get rid of half terms which are disruptive. Parents and kids get fed up with long summer holidays. The CTCs are all very enthusiastic about it and it has been proved to be very successful."
However, he anticipates resistance from the teaching unions. "Teachers and the educational world in general are very conservative about change and when they take their holidays. But we have got to take a leap of imagination."
Mr Lane's comments revive the debate over the reform of the school year which has lain dormant since the early 1990s when attempts to introduce a four-term year were scuppered by apathy and inconclusive consultation. Attempts in the 1970s by the National Union of Teachers and Assistant Masters and Mistresses Association to persuade their members of the need for reform failed to progress beyond tentative and sometimes cumbersome four-term models.
The question resurfaced with Education on even terms, a 1986 report by the Association of County Councils, which announced that "the time is ripe to consider change". Among its recommendations were a four-term year, bringing the examination period forward by two weeks, local agreements on holiday dates and amendments to teachers' conditions of service.
The ACC argued that the uneven three-term pattern created planning difficulties. The autumn term was too long, particularly for primary pupils, and led to absenteeism among children and staff. The summer-term exam arrangements adversely affected pupils who were not candidates and vandalism and delinquency increased during the long summer break. "Educational benefits are likely to flow from a re-ordering of the school year," the ACC report concluded.
In 1991, a survey by the Council of Local Education Authorities found opinion was split over the idea of a four-term year, with half the 24 LEAs polled in favour. "What we were proposing wasn't all that different," says CLEA's Ivor Widdison. "There was still a five- or six-week summer break during June and July, but it was perceived to be a radical change. I didn't think it was all that radical myself."
Although none of these plans succeeded in altering the school calendar, the arguments that supported change still apply, Ivor Widdison says. "The autumn term, everyone agrees, is a very long and tiring term, and the summer term is very unsatisfactory."
The survey asked other organisations which would be affected by the changes, such as exam boards, unions, industry and consumer associations, for their responses. Most had few objections, although tourist boards put up strong opposition. "The landladies of Margate, Scarborough and Blackpool were dead against it," he recalls.
Further discussions seem to have been stalled by the introduction of the national curriculum. But with a new government reassessing the education system, leading Labour figures are known to favour sweeping changes in teachers' working methods and in school structures.
A senior party member told a Fabian Society seminar in June that there should be sharp reductions in teachers' holiday entitlement to bring them more into line with other professions and that teachers' administrative tasks should be cut back, allowing for more time in the classroom and the introduction of teaching sessions after school and on Saturday mornings.
But any proposal to lengthen the teaching year from 39 to 40 weeks is bound to meet opposition from unions. "We are totally opposed to extending the school year unless teachers are paid or additional staff provided," says Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the NASUWT, the second largest teachers's union. "If anyone puts this forward there will be confrontation."
Literacy summer camps, due to be piloted in 50 schools this year, signal the Government's intention to use the long break constructively.
The original reason for the long summer break, which was designed to release children to help with the harvest, is now as outmoded as the horse and plough.
Professor Richard Aldrich, of the Institute of Education in London, says that a government looking to make cost-free improvements to the school system could do worse than consider reform to the term structure.
"People have been proposing over several decades that the present system is an ineffective use of the year. Religious festivals and harvests don't have the prominent place in our lives that they once did. And if governments are concerned with standards, and it can be demonstrated that there is an optimum pattern for learning, then there might be an argument for reform."
Research into learning loss during long holidays is scarce, but what there is seems to confirm the tacit assumption that children forget a significant amount of the previous year's learning during a lengthy lay-off. In the United States, where summer vacations can last up to 10 weeks, recent studies have shown that schools have to spend several weeks bringing some pupils back up to speed.
A 1972 study of primary schoolchildren in this country found that a substantial number of them came back after the summer with reduced levels of literacy. The loss was most pronounced in less able children but a drop in performance was noticed across all abilities.
Cutting summer holidays and rearranging the year would carry other benefits, say advocates of reform. Earlier exams would avoid the hay fever season and university admissions could be made on actual rather than predicted grades, giving school-leavers who failed to achieve their expected results longer to find alternative places.
Margaret Morrissey of the National Confederation of Parent-Teachers Associations says that the opportunities long summer holidays gave for children to enjoy themselves were offset by the problems working parents face over child care. "Our members are split down the middle. A large number of parents feel that in an ideal English summer it does children a great deal of good to get out in the fresh air. But to parents who work it is a great concern what they are going to do with their children."
The National Association of Headteachers last discussed the issue at its 1984 conference but a lack of consensus prevented any action. "Our attempts were hampered by inertia," says David Hart, the NAHT's general secretary. "But I would certainly like to revisit the subject."
Professor Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Brunel University, says the desirability of reform may be tempered by logistic problems and a natural resistance to change from a profession still reeling from years of upheaval.
"What we have is a contrast between something that would work very neatly on a sheet of paper and the history and traditions of a country."