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Six-term year gains pace

Change could be on the way, reports Anat Arkin

A head of steam is growing behind proposals for a standard six-term year, responses to local authority consultations with headteachers, governors, parents and others suggest.

"People see a lot of sense in the proposals, especially the idea of standardisation across the country, but the issue is to get everyone to go forward on this together," said a spokeswoman for the Local Government Association (LGA), which backs the proposals and is collating responses from the consultations.

Around 100 authorities have so far announced that they are sounding out local opinion on the proposals, though the LGA expects to receive responses from a higher number by the time the consultation period ends on June 30.

Former MP Christopher Price, who chairs the commission which recommended the new school year for 2003, accepts that a common system will take time. But he predicts that once some authorities adopt the six-term year, a "snowball" effect will follow.

However, there are signs that the commission's proposed timetable is already beginning to slip. "Our response at the moment is that given the stated opposition of a number of the teacher associations to this, and also given the short time-scale for implementation for 20034, we are more likely to postpone implementation until 20045," said Geoff Pennington, director of education for Darlington, one of 12 authorities in the north-east of England that already have a fairly uniform pattern of term dates.

The 22 authorities in Wales, which are planning further consultations with the teacher unions and other relevant bodies, are also unlikely to adopt the new school year before September 2004.

Other authorities are waiting to see what happens elsewhere. Birmingham broadly favours the proposals. But the authority says it will implement them only if there is a nationally-agreed change to the school year.

In a recent House of Lords debate on the school year, education minister Baroness Ashton said the Government would not seek to regulate LEAs and schools unless there was a clear need to do so.

While some teacher unions have accused councils of pursuing change for its own sake, other critics say that the proposals do not go far enough. "It's tinkering around the edges of what we already have," says Catriona Williamson, head of Garton-on-the-Wolds primary school near Driffield, Yorkshire.

In a motion due to be debated today at the National Association of Head Teachers' annual conference, Mrs Williamson and her husband Phil have described the six-term year as a "cop-out", and called for five terms of equal length.

But according to John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association and a member of the Independent Commission on the Organisation of the School Year, the practical result of recommending more radical change would have been no change at all.

"There is a huge resistance in the system to a five-term year. We looked at that alternative but decided that many of the benefits of a five-term year could be won through a six-term year but without frightening the horses," he said.

For other commentators, the issue is not so much the number of terms as whether schools adopt the same pattern.

Richard Collins, a delegate from the NAHT's south-east region, has tabled a motion calling for a national policy on dates.

His authority, Surrey, borders no fewer than 14 others, all with their own term dates. This often rules out family holidays for heads and teachers with children at schools in neighbouring authorities or partners who teach outside Surrey.

"Whatever the pattern is, it needs to be decided nationally because even with a five or six-term year, you could have people delaying the start of the year by a week and then schools in different authorities would still have staggered holidays," he said.

WHAT THE COMMISSION RECOMMENDED

* Six terms of no more than 38 days each, with two terms before Christmas.

* A two-week break in October.

* A spring holiday in April, which is not tied to Easter.

* A summer break of five to six weeks beginning early in July.

* Five "flexible days", used either as holidays or school time.

The commission will be issuing a further report in the autumn after analysing local consultations.

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