Common calendar can't come soon enough

17th January 2003 at 00:00
Let's hope it's not too late to persuade the Government that the shape of the school year is too important an issue to be left to individual local authorities.

With so much speculation about four or five-term years, we can be excused for believing dramatic change is imminent. But two long-overdue minor adjustments are all that is needed. First, we must get rid of the wild fluctuation in the timing of the Easter holiday; then we must address the problem of the exhausting autumn term.

The spring holiday depends entirely on the lottery of when Easter falls. As this can be any time between mid-March and late April, it causes mayhem in preparing pupils for important exams. It also results in a half-term that is too short or too long, and wreaks havoc on assessment and report writing. The spring holiday should be at a fixed time, which sometimes will include Easter and sometimes not, when a long weekend will have to suffice.

Similarly, we have put up for too long with a seemingly endless autumn term that leads to teachers and pupils grinding it out until Christmas. The best alternative here would be to follow the example of many independent schools and have a break of two weeks in the second half of October; this would give a real opportunity to recharge batteries. The other option, of starting the autumn term later than usual and sticking to a week's holiday - say in early November - would have the knock-on effect of making the previous summer term too long.

These changes would give cohesion and coherence to the school year. And they are national issues; encouraging local authorities to find their own solutions will bring even greater discrepancies than at present. A standardised school year would also end the frustration for many families of having different members studying or working in neighbouring authorities with different holiday dates.

We also need to end the bear garden of allocating university places between A-level results in mid-August and the start of some courses only a month later. Strictly speaking, this is not to do with the shape of the school year but about timing within that year. It is imperative, though, that all schools' terms allow students to apply for university once they have their A-level results.

Agreeing a standardised year would allow two more important matters to be addressed: the chaos produced by the number of in-service training courses in school time - many of them necessary parts of government initiatives but which cannot be justified at a time of teacher shortage - and the randomness of university open days and interviews, which disrupt A2 teaching from November to April. It surely is not beyond the powers of the Department for Education and Skills to concentrate these Inset and open days in a specified time and so cause minimal disruption.

A common school year would solve more difficulties than it would cause. The only allowances that need to be made are for a small number of religious festivals. Beyond that, is the Government really afraid of offending a few enthusiasts for experimental change at the expense of huge advantages for the majority? It is ironic that in this time of unparalleled central direction of education, responsibility has been abdicated in one area where the universal benefits of national direction are palpable.

John Claydon is head of Wyedean school, Monmouthshire

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