Five-term year benefits health and pockets

7th November 2008 at 00:00
Eight weeks on, then two weeks off: it seems a more sensible plan for the school year

Why do school terms vary in length? Last year, the autumn term was its usual gruelling 16 weeks with only one-week for half-term. For my school, the second half also included an Estyn inspection, making it feel longer than normal. Then the spring term was incredibly short - fewer than 10 weeks in total - because of an exceptionally early Easter. That resulted in a long summer term.

Such variations affect the most basic planning in schools, not just teaching schemes, but also important meetings, including parents' evenings.

Recently a Labour think tank recommended, yet again, that education should have a five-term year. According to the researchers, an eight-week summer holiday is far too long and leads to too much knowledge being forgotten. Clearly these people were all public-school educated: it is a very long time since state schools had an eight-week summer holiday. Six weeks is the norm. Even this is looked on in envy by those outside education.

The researchers are also wrong about the problem of knowledge being forgotten. Yes, it is forgotten, sometimes after one day, let alone six weeks, but this is not particularly important because knowledge per se is not of much use. In our increasingly instant information age, knowledge is only important when it serves a specific purpose. Much more important are the understanding, skills and attitudes that can be developed through learning. Unfortunately, these too can quickly be forgotten over a long summer holiday.

Susan Lewis, the former chief inspector of schools for Wales, regularly called for a five-term year, but her calls seemed to fall on deaf ears. Personally, I think it is an excellent idea, for several strong reasons. It appears, however, that it is opposed by the larger teaching unions, mainly because the six-week summer holiday is seen as a perk by teachers.

I would support a proper debate on the pros and cons of such a change. Introducing a five-week term could become an important part of the strategies that are making Wales a distinctively different learning country from the rest of the UK. The terms would be of near-equal length, with four of eight weeks and one of seven weeks. The in-service training days could be fitted in when needed.

This structure would make planning far simpler. Work schemes could be tailored to fit evenly into the terms and there would not be the problem of having to adapt them each year. It would also make planning the school calendar easier.

However, an argument against a five-term year might be that eight weeks is a long time in between holidays. This brings me to my next argument for wanting change. Five terms would allow every holiday to be a minimum of two weeks.

People outside education consider school holidays to be excessively long. But they clearly have no idea of the intensity that teaching involves. A teacher is, basically, putting on a performance several times a day to a very critical audience. I challenge anyone who thinks teaching is easy to try it out for a few weeks. It is exhausting and the breaks are essential to prevent burnout.

I agree that eight weeks is a long time between holidays. However, it is quite possible when you then have a fortnight to rest and recuperate.

The problem with one-week half terms has been stated many times, and by many teachers. By the time you have begun to relax, you are already beginning to think and plan for the next half-term. This is why so many teachers are ill during half-term breaks. A full fortnight off allows for proper relaxation and recharging.

A five-term year could be structured with four two-week holidays and one of five weeks. Alternatively, there could be three two-week breaks, one three-week holiday - perhaps at Christmas - and one of four weeks in the summer. Either structure would be preferable, in my opinion, to what we have now.

By spreading longer holidays more regularly through the year, there could be more chance of taking cheaper holidays. At the moment teachers - and families - are ripped off by travel companies whenever we go on holiday. If Wales had a different academic year structure from that in England, we could be laughing when we purchased holidays.

So, a five-term year brings a benefit to teaching and learning, to teachers' health and to teachers' pockets. I cannot understand why we haven't demanded these changes years ago.

One final and more radical suggestion: the Assembly government has been giving seven in-service training days to schools in Wales for several years now. Why not make eight in-service days a permanent feature, in exchange for a commitment that all training for teachers only takes place on those days. This would mean that teachers were not absent from lessons on courses at other times of the year. It would have a huge benefit for pupils, school budgets and the workload target of eliminating cover. It seems to make sense.

Alan Tootill, Headteacher of Penyrheol Comprehensive, Swansea.

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