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Rescuing the rhythms of learning

IT is doubtful if anything good can come out of the fiasco at the Scottish Qualifications Authority but at least such a monumental disaster means that we will never again be able to pretend that our system is superior to anyone else's.

We have never been good at learning from others, especially the country attached to our southern border, and while we are smugly relieved to have escaped the horrors of OFSTED we are reluctant to admit that the best parts of the literacy and numeracy hours have quietly made a valuable place for themselves in our primary classrooms.

Our newly opened minds may allow us more than a passing glance at proposals from an independent inquiry into the structure of the school year in England. The plan is for six roughly equal terms providing regular breaks for teachers and pupils, and is the first official attempt to restructure the school year for the needs of the 21st century.

There are two main arguments for restructuring the school year - learning loss among children and fatigue and stress among teachers.

Despite the clamour of advice which we receive from all quarters on how to raise attainment, there has been an eerie silence on certain taboos such as the possibly detrimental effect of the school year on children's learning, and this is not properly addressed in the English proposals. Under pressure from teaching unions and parents' groups they have retained the six-week summer break which makes a nonsense of any claim to be contributing to children's learning.

Any teacher who has returned in August to continue with last year's class will have been sharply reminded of how much has been forgotten. Most children do not use their mathematics, writing or spelling skills and many will not read in any concentrated way.

Long terms are tiring for children and tiredness reduces ability to learn and to ehave well. Long terms are tiring for teachers in a job which demands an unrealistic level of commitment. At the end of June I vowed that the exhaustion I witnessed in our own school must not happen again but having made every effort to check that the demands are evenly spread, I strongly suspect that the main culprit is the 12-week stretch of darkness and illness from January to March.

The six-term proposal from England is a good start but it is too fragmented and leaves the long summer in place. A five-term year would make more sense.

Overall holiday allocation would remain with each eight-week term followed by a two-week break and four weeks in July-August. Teachers and learners would work in more effective blocks with regular and adequate recharging of batteries. The reduction of the long summer holiday would be balanced with good breaks in May and October, while each day in the eight-week term would count towards learning. The exam season would only start a little earlier and reduction of the high summer family holiday time would be irrelevant.

May and October would be available, too, although the battle to have family and school holidays coincide may already be lost if the increasing numbers in our own school escaping to Majorca or Florida throughout the year are any guide.

Some schools in England have had the opportunity to change their school year with positive reactions from teachers, pupils and parents. The rhythm of teaching and learning is seen to be more consistent and effective and health and tempers are better. It takes courage and determination to undertake such a major change but the payback could be a major boost to attainment.

Once that was achieved we could even turn our attention to the hotter potato of the retiming of the school day and the social and educational revolution that would follow.

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