Just how long should a school break be and when should it happen? It depends on where you live. Susan Young reports
So, the last great perk of teaching is nearly over for another year. Scottish schools start reopening on Monday after six weeks or more of holiday, followed in the first week of September by almost everyone else.
At that point teachers and parents start poring over the calendar and travel brochures to organise the next great escape. And that's where the fun starts: because many will discover that the Easter Bank Holiday weekend is divorced from the equivalent school break in 2008, when Easter falls on March 23.
But this arrangement isn't universal, even in the English education authorities: it roughly follows a north-south divide. If you're in the north, expect Easter to be early, but included in your two-week break. If you're in the south, plan for a long weekend with a holiday to follow a fortnight later.
Strange? No story on school holiday patterns is complete without someone snorting how ridiculous it is that old harvesting rhythms still set the pace for a modern education system.
But it's an awful lot more complicated than that. According to Chris Price, the man whose cajoling has led many English education authorities to adopt a "standard" school year, it's the invention of the telescope which causes bigger headaches these days.
"The problem is still Easter," he says, "Which can happen any time from March 14 to April 15. And so you can end up with half terms of three weeks as a result."
In 325AD the first council of Nicaea decided when Easter should fall. "The Jewish Christians wanted it fixed by the phases of the moon, while the Egyptians wanted it fixed by the sun, as they had just invented the telescope," says Chris. The result was a classic compromise: Easter would be the Sunday closest to the first full moon after the vernal equinox.
It is currently causing headaches for the Local Government Association (LEA) committee attempting to plan school holidays for the year 201011, when Easter falls on April 24, because the choices are either to divorce the Easter Bank Holiday from the school holiday by four days, or create some very odd length terms.
Local authorities don't like Bank Holidays falling in the week before school holidays, or on the Monday following one, because the temptation for parents to take their children out of school for an extra four days is just too great. And northern authorities tend not to like Easter as a standalone weekend. The idea has even been floated that the late May Bank Holiday could move, but the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (formerly the Department of Trade and Industry) would have to agree to that. Since the Government has already made clear that it will not legislate to fix school holidays, the chances of these holidays moving is slim.
But, meanwhile, the LEA committee, with members from teaching unions, local authorities and tourism representatives, now meets to set suggested school holiday dates for each year, and at least half of English education authorities follow the new pattern the LEA is surveying them for the latest figures.
Many local anomalies have disappeared: Lancashire school holidays now follow a conventional pattern, rather than including Wakes Weeks, a relic of the days when a whole industrial town decamped to the seaside en masse.
The original aim was to regularise dates so that neighbouring authorities' schools were off at the same time, and to make terms of equal length so that pupils and teachers did not get too tired. "I think what we've done has helped," says Chris, a former Labour MP and chairman of the House of Commons education select committee, who chaired the Independent Commission on the Organisation of the School Year.
It also hoped to raise standards, and originally considered a radical five term year, which would have meant a truncated summer holiday. At the time, there was much talk of summer learning loss, but as Chris says now, little UK local research to support the theory.
The debate started and still rages in America, which has three-month summer holidays. But, equally, schools in Northern Ireland get nine-week summer holidays and excellent results.
Now, the LEA committee sets guidelines on a six-term year according to certain principles (see box, right).
In doing so, it has tussled with the NASUWT, which is determined to defend the long summer holiday (which it sees as a vital perk for recruitment and retention of teachers) and believes that the changes have made things worse. "The outcome on the ground has been exactly what we predicted," says Chris Keates, union general secretary. "Local authorities are operating different patterns and variations of the six-term year. Some have retained the traditional model. Others have moved to a six-term year, but not fixed Easter, and so the terms vary. Some local authorities have customised the dates.
"Rather than improving and standardising the pattern, it is the view of the NASUWT that the LEA has just added to the confusion. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have had stable traditional patterns for years. Everyone knows where they stand and nobody believes that the education service in those nations is the poorer for that."
Seamus Searson, the union's Northern Ireland organiser, is also sniffy about claims that shorter terms and more regular holidays make for better school results. "You've only got to look at our results here, with a nine-week holiday," he says. "Teachers pace themselves.
"No matter how long the term is, you get tired at the same point."
WHO GETS WHAT IN THE SUMMER
ENGLAND mostly about six weeks.
WALES six weeks in the summer, dates set centrally.
SCOTLAND From end of May or early June to late August.
NORTHERN IRELAND Summer holiday runs from the start of June till the start of September but holidays at other time of year are shorter, with half-terms of a day or so rather than a week.
BREAK AWAY FROM THE REST
Few households probably have as complicated a calendar as that of Debbie Stoker, head of Greensward College in Essex, one of a handful of schools to go it alone on a five-term year.
The potential problem for Debbie was the rest of her family: her husband heads another school, while her son was educated in a different area altogether.
Debbie works in precise eight-week blocks, with a shorter summer holiday of about five weeks, a fortnight for Christmas and Easter and longer than average holidays in October, February and May.
"I was somebody who wasn't particularly persuaded about it to begin with. But by the second block of holidays I realised it was a lot simpler system. The eight-week blocks give you a different attitude, because you know there's two weeks off at the end. And it's very easy for planning lessons.
"My husband is head at another school. At the end of term he's tired out and I can keep going a week longer."
More importantly, Debbie says it is working well for Greensward pupils. The school adopted the new system in January 2000 to fit with its modular courses: it was, she says, all about learning and not what is convenient for teachers or families.
After much consultation, and protests from one or two parents, it made the change. "Nobody left," says Debbie. "We did say right at the start that if it didn't work we'd go back to the old system. We canvassed pupils and 98 per cent said they wouldn't change back to a three-term year now," she says.
The two-week holidays mean pupils can complete work and have a break, and spring school skiing trips in the US are now easier to arrange. Long-term staff sickness is also down.
HOW THE LEA RECOMMENDS HOLIDAYS ARE ORGANISED
* The year starts as near as possible to September 1.
* Equal teaching and learning blocks of roughly 2x7 and 4x6 weeks.
* Two-week spring break in early April, not necessarily at Easter but nationally agreed if it doesn't coincide.
* Minimum six-week summer holiday except in areas which traditionally had less.