Did you know?
* Our six-week summer break - which the NASUWT has called "the last perk of the profession" - is the shortest of any EU country. The break in the US is around 11 weeks
* France has three regional zones, each with its own holiday dates laid down by central government. The idea is to ease road and airport congestion, but it also keeps prices slightly lower
* The setting of term dates in England and Wales is the responsibility of individual local education authorities
* Twenty-five of England's LEAs have agreed, in principle, to adopt a six-term year from September 2005. Welsh authorities have pledged to standardise their existing three-term years, but are still debating the six-term issue
The way we structure our school year dates back to an age when children spent the long summer holiday working in the fields, not hanging around shopping centres. Is it time for a rethink? Or has the current system survived so long because it's effective? And if we do opt for change, then what's the best alternative? Local authorities are being asked to consider moving to a six-term year by September 2005, while some schools have already switched to a five-term year, which they say works just fine. The challenge is to find a system that will ease the pressure on teachers, fit in with modern family life, and meet the educational needs of children. No wonder it's proving difficult.
The rhythm of life
The origins of our school calendar are complex. The observance of Christian festivals is clearly a factor, but the farming cycle, especially harvest, has probably also played a part, as have the timings of university terms and parliamentary sessions. Critics argue that in a hi-tech, multicultural age, this pattern is illogical and outdated. The main concern is lack of balance. At around 16 weeks, the autumn term is disproportionately long.
But at least it's predictably long, unlike the more fluid spring and summer terms. As a moveable feast celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon after March 20, Easter can fall anywhere between March 22 and April 25. An early or late Easter distorts the two terms either side of it, meaning the spring term can last between 10 and 14 weeks, while the first half of the summer term can be as short as four weeks, or as long as seven.
So the dates vary - what's the problem?
Many teachers feel that uneven terms make planning more difficult. In particular, they say the variable time between the start of the summer term and the onset of the exam period makes it hard to schedule revision. The UK Youth Parliament echoes this view, complaining that in some cases teachers fail to deliver the syllabus in time.
The long autumn term can also cause problems. Some LEAs report a marked rise in pupil exclusions in the second half of this term. Teachers, too, can find the going tough at this time of year. Statistics show that 2.7 million days each year are lost to teacher sickness - and while the Government doesn't break down the figures term by term, supply agencies testify that the biggest surge in demand always occurs in late October and November.
At least there's a six-week holiday every summer
Perfect for overworked teachers, but not necessarily beneficial for their pupils. Research in the United States has identified the phenomenon of "summer learning loss". A study at the University of Missouri, for example, found that students tested immediately after the summer break performed less well than they had done the previous spring. It was estimated that there was "learning loss" equivalent to one month's schooling - with pupils from less advantaged backgrounds being worst affected. But the summer break in the US is typically around 11 weeks, whereas our own six-week break is already the shortest of any EU country. There has been little research into whether the shorter break has a similar impact. "There is some evidence that it might," says Caroline Sharp of the National Foundation for Educational Research, "but it certainly isn't conclusive. It probably depends on how the child spends his or her time over the summer." In other words, encouraging children to use their holidays to continue learning may be more important than shortening the time they're away from school.
Alternatives: the five-term year
If the aim is to create a more even calendar, then the five-term model - of five eight-week blocks of schooling, with two-week holidays between terms, except in summer when the break is four weeks - seems the logical conclusion. Proponents argue it reduces the risk of summer learning loss, makes it easy to plan ahead, and keeps staff and pupils feeling fresh. In 2000, the Local Government Association set up an independent commission to examine the school year. The idea of a five-term year was floated, only to be sunk immediately as the unions responded furiously to the prospect of members losing their long summer holiday, or "the last perk of the profession" as the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers called it. The unions also insisted that there was no hard evidence that a five-term year would raise standards. A handful of schools (see case study) has already adopted the five-term year - and it has been operating in some city technology colleges for more than a decade. Research by Professor Trevor Kerry of the University of Lincoln, carried out at these colleges in 2000, revealed that students felt the five-term year aided their concentration, improved their test scores, and increased their liking of school. "Their only complaint," says Professor Kerry, "was that they kept getting picked up by truant patrols."
The six-term year
The independent commission also put forward the idea of six terms. It proposes just two significant changes to the existing calendar: between two and five days taken out of the summer holiday and added to the October half-term, and the holiday at the end of spring term fixed to two weeks in April, with Good Friday and Easter Monday taken as bank holidays when they fall outside those dates. The two terms before Christmas would still be longer than the other terms, but the extended break between them would reduce stress. "It's not all that radical," says Graham Lane, chair of the Local Government Association's education committee, "but it would make terms more regular without causing upheaval." In the long term, the LGA hopes that it may be possible to bring forward the main exam period by around a month - into term five. This would bring some relief for hay fever sufferers who currently have to sit their exams at a time when pollen counts are peaking. It might also allow universities to offer places based on actual results, rather than predicted grades. Term six would then become an induction term, or could be used for trips and extracurricular activities.
Who decides which system to adopt?
The setting of term dates in England and Wales is the responsibility of individual local authorities. There must be a minimum of 190 teaching days each year, but authorities can meet that target however they choose. It makes for a great deal of regional variation and, even within one LEA, several sets of dates may be in operation. In Lancashire, for example, some parts of the county have a four-week summer holiday from early July to early August, followed by a two-week holiday - the "Wakes Weeks" - in early September, traditionally a time when local mills and factories shut down.
If local authorities embrace the six-term initiative, this kind of regional variation will be minimised. However, the current proposals for a standard year suggest retaining five "floating" days which could be used to meet individual schools' needs with regard to religious festivals or local traditions. And, of course, independent schools - whose academicyear is typically around 175 days - would still be free to set their own term dates, even if the local education authority in their area switched to a six-term year.
What about Scotland?
The overall number of working days is the same as in England and Wales, and term dates are again set by local authorities. However, the general pattern of the year is slightly different. The summer term ends a month earlier than in England - to take advantage of the longer daylight hours - and children return to school around the middle of August. This means that, if anything, the Scottish year is even less well balanced than the English.
But many authorities in Scotland already have a two-week half-term break in the autumn term, as proposed for England and Wales , while some even divide the autumn term into three by having two separate one-week breaks.
"Everyone seems quite satisfied with the current arrangements," says a spokesperson at the Scottish Executive. "There's regional variation, but we're quite happy to live with that. There are certainly no plans to change anything in the immediate future."
So what's happening in England and Wales?
At present, 25 of the 150 local authorities in England have agreed, in principle, to adopt the six-term plan from September 2005. Meanwhile, the 25 Welsh authorities have pledged to standardise their existing three-term years, but are still debating the six-term issue. So what is holding people back? Sheila Dainton of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers believes there is a lack of goodwill towards the initiative because "teachers and headteachers still do not feel that they've been properly consulted".
Graham Lane argues that it's just a matter of local authorities being afraid to take the plunge. "It's like bungee jumping," he says. "No one wants to go first. Most of the London boroughs have told us they would like to move to a six-term year, but only if their neighbouring boroughs do the same."
Whatever happens, the transition is likely to be confusing. If some LEAs operate on three terms and others on six, there will be more regional variation than now, rather than less. In particular, life will be difficult for parents who have children at school in more than one area, or for teachers who work in one LEA but whose children attend school in another.
But Graham Lane remains confident that the six-term year is gathering momentum, and that change is inevitable. "In three years' time, it will all be done and dusted," he says. "Every local authority will have made the switch."
That's an end to the debate then?
Not at all. There is still a feeling that the six-term year is a compromise designed to keep the teachers and the unions happy - not a blueprint for the perfect education system. "The LGA's push for the six-term year is doing education a great disservice," says Professor Kerry. "It's a weak compromise. It doesn't give you terms of equal length and it doesn't address the issue of summer learning loss, so what's the point?"
The LGA admits there is some truth in this, but argues that while teachers remain opposed to a shorter summer break, there's little they can do. "Even if schools adopt the six-term year, it doesn't have to be forever and all time," says Fleur Young of the LGA. "But throughout our consultations, teachers have said the same thing - they don't want to lose the long summer holiday."
However, proponents of a five-term year with regular two-week breaks argue that if teachers didn't get so run down in the first place, they wouldn't be so desperate for a long break. "Even if the summer break is cut to four weeks, it's not a bad deal, is it?" says Geoff Brookes, deputy head at Cefn Hengoed community school in Swansea. "What other profession allows you a month off every summer? The needs of teachers are important, but so, too, are the needs of the pupils."
And then there are the needs of parents. "Families that have to pay for child care would actually welcome a shorter summer break," says Natasha Benenson of the National Council for One Parent Families. "It would spread the costs more evenly across the year."
What about the cost of holidays?
Not such a frivolous question. With holidays up to 30 per cent more expensive during the summer school break, an increasing number of families jet off during term time. In some authorities, term-time holidays are now the biggest cause of unauthorised absence.
But standardising the school year is likely to make holidays even more expensive. "If everyone is following the same dates, then demand will increase at peak times, and prices are bound to go up," says Sarah Reid of Leisure Industry Research, a company that provides data for the travel industry telling them how many children are on holiday at any one time.
"The temptation for parents will be to holiday in late June and early July, when exams are finished but prices are significantly lower."
Indeed, most European countries go out of their way to ensure that school holidays aren't synchronised. In France, for example, there are three regional zones, each with its own set of holiday dates laid down by central government. The idea is to ease congestion on the roads and at the airports, but it also keeps prices slightly lower. There are no plans for this kind of regional staggering in the UK, although the LGA suggests there may still be room for manoeuvre, even in a standardised year.
Schools that never shut
More than 3,000 schools in the US have abandoned the traditional calendar with its long summer vacation and opted instead for "year-round education".
In most cases, this simply means they follow a regular holiday pattern similar to the five-term year. But some have been more radical, extending the length of the academic year, and staying open for up to 260 days of the year. Not all the teachers and students are in school every day, with several schools operating "multi-streaming", where different groups of students have different term dates. This allows them to accommodate more children on their roll.
Professor Kerry argues that this kind of approach offers flexibility and better value for money. "Schools in the UK are only open for 13 per cent of their potential time," he says. "It's a waste of resources. Perhaps instead of debating whether to have three, five or six terms, what we should really be asking is whether it's possible to escape the term-by-term system altogether."