The days when young people helped out with the harvest are long gone. So is it time to tear up the calender and organise school holidays on the basis of the needs of children rather than nature? Harvey McGavin reports
Advocates of a five-term year need look no further than some city technology colleges for a model. Five of the 15 CTCs operate on an eight-weeks-on, two-weeks-off rota, with a month's break for summer.
Keith McCorkindale, principal of the John Cabot CTC in Bristol, says the format is a common-sense solution to the acknowledged problems of a three-term year. "When the college opened in 1993 we sat down and said 'let's question the three-term year and see how we can make things better'."
Having rejected the four-term option as impractical ("it didn't quite fit the bill") they found that splitting the 40-week year into five equal segments produced more manageable chunks and most holidays could be made to coincide with conventional LEA breaks.
The college terms run from mid-August to mid-October, late October to Christmas, second week of January to early March, mid-March to mid-May and late May to mid-July. Christmas and summer holidays overlap with their LEA equivalents while the breaks between the first and second terms and the fourth and fifth correspond with traditional half terms. Easter holidays are taken during term four.
Teacher training and in-service training days are tacked on to the end of holidays or conducted in after-school "twilight sessions" and staff are required to work between 205 and 207 days a year.
Mr McCorkindale says the system has "positive professional and educational benefits", giving a settled rhythm to school life, reducing stress-related absence and illness, and having definite advantages when it comes to timetabling of work.
"Eight-week terms divide neatly into two- or four-week segments and that is very useful for departments that are required to rotate modules of work throughout the year.
"The staff and pupils like it - they get four weeks into the term and think 'we're halfway through!' - so that even though they work hard they don't get exhausted. Four weeks is long enough for summer - children don't forget so much as they do over a six or seven-week break but still come back refreshed. "
Staff recruited from mainstream schools have found the system to their liking but would not like to see it introduced across the board. "They rather appreciate the opportunity to get cheap off-peak holidays," says Mr McCorkindale.
The only minor difficulty is that the exam period falls in the break between terms four and five, but this has been overcome by offering staff overtime payments for invigilating.
Mr McCorkindale believes the five-term model could be introduced at amalgamating or newly-built schools with only minor amendments to the old routine. "There are clear opportunities for these schools but it does require a catalyst, for someone to say it doesn't have to be three terms. I came from a three-term background.
"It is only convention that dictates a three-term year and we shouldn't be bound by the shackles of that calendar."