Ready or not, the five-term year could be herein 2000, but like the millennium itself, there are bugs to be tackled. Chief among them, say critics, is the disruption that would be caused to family life. Wendy Wallace speaks to parents, teachersand educationists on both sides of the debate
Susan Bishop is head of modern languages at Tideway School in Newhaven, East Sussex. She also has five children of her own, aged four to 14, attending schools along the coast in Brighton and Hove.
If East Sussex goes ahead with its plan for a five-term year, the 49-year-old teacher will find herself working in one system but parenting in another, with all the holiday clashes this will involve. And that could cost Mrs Bishop her job.
"It will make continuing working very difficult. And after surviving five maternity leaves and making all the complicated arrangements that involved, it seems very unjust. Many women feel it is quite discriminatory in its impact."
Mother-of two Jean Hand is more concerned about the impact on her family life. She and other parents in the rural villages of the Sussex Downs say the loss of the long summer break will hit them hard. "It's the only time you're not on this conveyor belt of gunfire education," says Mrs Hand.
She is one of many parents with children at Ditchling Primary School who, because they live on the borders of the county, are particularly concerned about the authority's push to reform the school calendar. With many older children going on to West Sussex secondary schools, the potential for disruption is considerable.
"We'll only get eight weeks together as a family," says Mrs Hand. "But I'll have to be around for 18 weeks of the year for childcare."
The plan in East Sussex is for five terms, each of eight weeks, from September 2000. At the end of each term will be a two-week holiday, with a four-week break in the summer. Most of the county council's 10-strong working group on the matter have come out in favour of the change, and some parents and teachers feel the decision has already been made. "It's a fait accompli-type feeling," says Liz Pope, chair of Ditchling PTA.
Matt Dunkley, assistant director of education in East Sussex and chair of a working group on the proposal, says he came to the topic as an agnostic but is now a convert, convinced the five-term year offers educational benefits. He cites reduced summer learning loss, easier curriculum planning and better opportunities for modular teaching. "If I was trying to design a school year with a blank piece of paper, it wouldn't look anything like what we have now," he says.
The problem is that the paper is not blank. "I have a gut reaction against it," says West Sussex teacher Yvonne Hennessy, whose children attend an East Sussex primary school. "We've all got to be regimented, tidied up and made to fit into a system."
Many of her colleagues seem to lack the will for a fight on this topic. An East Sussex NUT ballot on the subject met with a pitifully small response. Only one fifth of those balloted responded - but of those, 89 per cent were opposed to change. A more recent NAHT survey of local heads had a 58 per cent response rate, with 124 voting against and 11 in favour of the five-term year from September 2000. Now the county has issued a questionnaire to 100,000 parents, with results to be analysed next month.
Opponents point to the fact that research on year-round education in the United States - which has proved broadly positive - is not necessarily applicable to the British context. Learning loss after the three-month US summer holiday, for instance, is greater than after the British six or seven-week break. Yet in the six British city technology colleges where the five-term year has been introduced, teachers and families profess themselves very satisfied.
Chief bogeyman for those against the five-term system is Professor Trevor Kerry of Lincolnshire and Humberside University, who, with Professor Brent Davies, did what research there is on the system here. He says: "It's not some idea invented by boffins. It's about whether children learn better. I'm convinced they do."
Professor Kerry, a former primary school special needs co-ordinator, says the chief reason to adopt the system is that children with special educational needs have been shown in the United States to suffer most from summer learning loss, and the additional autumn loss. Old ground has to be covered again. The second reason is that "those who've tried it find it better - teachers, pupils and parents".
It's a view supported by Gareth Newman, head of Brooke Weston CTC in Corby, Northamptonshire. With 37 years in teaching - the last nine in the five-term system - he describes the benefits as "tremendous".
Pupils may be disheartened to know that a visitor to Corby reported: "There is certainly no winding updown at the startend of terms. We visited on the penultimate day of the summer term and it was obvious that lessons were progressing as if it were mid-term."
Mr Newman says it benefits teachers as well as pupils. "The two-week break is hugely beneficial. A one-week break in the middle of a 17-week term is hardly any re-invigoration. You just get your nose above the water and you're back underneath it again."
Although the debate on the five-term year tends to fracture into family values, teachers' rights and educational arguments, there is a class dimension which has relevance to all of these. For those children whose long summer holidays give them the chance to try their French on the natives, have a go at sub-aqua diving and acquaint themselves with the Impressionists, the "hols" can certainly be enriching. But what about the rest?
"Having my kids out on the streets for seven weeks does them no good at all in the summer," says Mr Newman, whose school serves a mostly working-class community. "My perspective is that we're here for children and can and ought to minimise risks to them of adverse influences."
Late summers at Brooke Weston CTC, when the pupils are back in class, are characterised by pupils from other schools hanging around at the school gate or on the playing fields. Mr Newman says this is "because they have little or nothing to occupy their time".
Even some parents of privileged children claim to like the system. Alison Bunn, 41, has one son, Tim, at Brooke Weston, and a younger boy, Chris, at a private school. Although she finds having children in separate systems difficult - and takes her children on separate holidays - she prefers the five-term year. "They get a regular two-week break, which is a good rest for them. And in the four-week summer holiday they don't have that time to cool down and get off their studies. Eight weeks, especially at 12-plus, is a long time to be kicking your heels."
The five-term year can seem like a cost-free way of potentially driving up standards, albeit one that has not been tried and tested in mainstream British education. The Government gave its blessing to change in a single sentence in the Green Paper, stating it would "support" re-organisation of the school year.
Now 30 or so local education authorities around the United Kingdom are playing chicken - waiting to see who will be first to dodge before the express trains of teacher union and parental opposition. East Sussex has one foot on the track, with the education committee due to decide at the end of June on a potential change in September 2000.
Other authorities are watching with interest. "We're fed up with tinkering around the edges. We need to improve standards, and believe this could be something that could do that," says Andrew Roberts, director of education in the London borough of Islington.
Hugh Malyan, education committee chair in Croydon, Surrey, is convinced of the potential educational benefits although "not unaware of the practical problems".
Graham Lane, chairman of education in the London borough of Newham and at the Local Government Association, believes the five-term year could improve learning and reduce staff stress. Research in the borough shows teacher absenteeism shooting up in December, March and June, he says, and "at the very least, terms should be equal lengths".
Many want to see co-ordinated action by the London boroughs, which tend to have many children travelling out of borough at secondary level. The 19 Labour-led boroughs have already discussed the move and will attempt to persuade Conservative and Liberal Democrat boroughs at a meeting next month.
East Sussex remains out in front. And, appropriately for this coastal county, opponents use seaside imagery to express their fears. "Any change should be based on good factual research, not on the whim of someone who wants to be first lemming over the cliff, taking our children with them," says Nick Satchell, chair of governors at Plumpton Primary School.
Like many, he believes that if there has to be a change it should be co-ordinated nationally. The Department for Education, meanwhile, sits on the beach, unwilling to immerse itself in politically cloudy waters.
Term time zones around the world
* Australia: most states have four 10-week terms a year with a two-week break between each term and a six-week summer break over Christmas. No mid-term breaks except when Easter intervenes at the end of term one.
* France: roughly six or six-and-a-half weeks on, two weeks off, throughout the year, except for 10-12 weeks' holiday in the summer .
* Germany: two semesters per year (August to FebruaryFebruary to July), five weeks' summer holiday. Two weeks at Christmas, and mid-February. Short break at Easter.
* United States: typically three terms of 12 weeks. Two or more weeks' break at Christmas and spring, and 11 weeks in the summer. No mid-term breaks. Varies from state to state