We've just completed our fourth year of five terms at Woodlands. My first reaction to the proposals was, "Why change something that's worked for so long, and six weeks is a real perk in the summer". But it soon became obvious that it was worth serious consideration.
Parents, governors and staff were the first ports of call in the consultation process; nothing is feasible unless the major players are fully informed and on board. Most parties - staff, governors and parents - backed the idea, although the teaching unions were less supportive. The LEA gave us the go-ahead, and when the school opened in September 1999 it was for a five-term year.
All five terms - two terms before Christmas and three after - are eight weeks long. This is in stark contrast to the three-term system, where length varies dramatically, so creating problems with organising, implementing and maintaining curriculum continuity. A two-week break between each term allows the children - and staff - to recover and prepare for the next one. The summer break is four weeks. Any bank holidays that fall while we're in session are taken as such, including Easter.
Having terms of the same length has enabled us to plan our curriculum in advance, without having to worry how long we have to fit in certain elements and whether the children's progress will be hindered by having a holiday in the middle of a topic. Staff and children come back after the breaks more refreshed and ready to work. We now realise just how inadequate the one-week half-term is; there's neither time to wind down properly, nor to prepare for the upcoming session. At first, some felt that an eight-week term was too long for the younger children, but that has not been the case.
With proper breaks between, they cope well.
The children's behaviour, attitude and general organisation after holidays is much better, particularly after the summer break. They also seem to retain more of the previous year's knowledge; and their preparedness to settle to learning at the beginning of term is a bonus.
Our commitment to five terms has not diminished; a recent evaluation of the system showed support from staff and parents. The only real disadvantage is that we are alone; we are the only school in the authority with a five-term year and, as far as I know, the only primary school in England. Courses and conferences often take place during our holidays, and the children sometimes miss out on extracurricular activities. Parents who have children in our school and local secondary schools also have to cope with holidays at different times. A number of staff also live out of county (we are a small authority), and the differences between their children's term times and ours can lead to problems. At times when recruitment is difficult, problems such as these need to be considered.
What does the future hold for us? In September 2004 we are due to fall in line with the rest of the authority and adopt a six-term year as we feel we cannot continue to plough a lone furrow. I feel this is a major step backwards. The five-term year is not perfect, but it has been a major contributing factor to our school's success (two curriculum achievement awards in the past two years). I feel that we will have to settle for a compromise rather than continue with a radical and innovative alternative.
I still believe that if we were going to design a structure the school year from scratch, then it would look nothing like the current three-term offering, or its six-term "sister".
Robert Beel is head of Woodlands primary school, Grimsby, North-east Lincolnshire