The debate on moving to shorter terms is gaining momentum. Brent Davies and Trevor Kerry see how it works in practice.
If the three-term year were not a widespread phenomenon in education, would anyone invent it? Exponents of the five-term year, who at present number mainly politicians and the city technology colleges in Britain, think not. The traditional calendar was designed for an agrarian society that no longer exists.
The movement away from a traditional school calendar has been gaining momentum in America. The National Association for Year-Round Education, based in San Diego, focuses much of this interest. Two million schoolchildren follow one of many alternative calendars available in the States.
These calendars vary in detail but share common characteristics. They acknowledge what teachers on both sides of the Atlantic know: that "summer learning loss" is a reality and requires teachers to spend valuable time on revision.
The shorter terms and more frequent holidays of most of these calendar systems fit well into modern lifestyles. The more even pattern of the school year created by such calendars, once experienced, appeals to pupils, parents and teachers. Little wonder, then, that these systems are now spreading to other countries.
In England, nine of the new education action zones plan to investigate the use of a five-term year. But in general our approach to calendar reform has been slow. English emphasis on tradition is probably to blame. Here, even within the three-term system, local variations - such as special weeks for the pottery trade or the textile industry - still exist yet the industries which spawned them barely exist and workers no longer have to take these breaks.
Politicians' recent attempts to kindle an interest in the five-term year have not always been tactful, and the (erroneous) view of the media, that five-term years would involve longer working hours for teachers, has been unhelpful. As a result, teacher unions have produced the inevitable knee-jerk reactions rather than examining the potential advantages.
Our research in the few English schools which have adopted these systems seems to confirm the American view that the five-term year works better.
We surveyed teachers, pupils and parents involved with one five-term-year scheme (see story right) and found this consensus: l The five-term-year allows pupils to concentrate better because they are less tired.
* The loss of the long summer break is a significant advantage in avoiding learning loss.
* Pupils' study patterns change for the better: they become more responsible for their own learning.
* Teachers get less stressed, have more patience, and work more effectively.
* The school year is more even in structure and pace, resulting in a better working atmosphere.
* Holidays when others are not on leave are more pleasant.
Of course, there are problems, too, and most of these are social ones. Pupils said that they did not share free time with friends in other, traditional, systems. Parents thought that the system was ideal when all siblings were involved, but could provide child-care crises when children were in schools using contrasting patterns.
Even some teachers found that they lost touch with colleagues in other schools. However, most pupils, parents and teachers thought the advantages more than outweighed the disadvantages.
Two issues merit special mention. First, much research in America now supports the view that long summer vacations hinder pupils' progress in reading, English and mathematics. In England, the Government's reaction has been to experiment with summer schools, but their effectiveness is ambiguous.
Even more worryingly, those most affected by learning loss are the most vulnerable: the less able, the socially disadvantaged, those whose first language is not English.
The second issue is curriculum organisation. A calendar system which delivers shorter terms is said to lend itself more effectively to modularisation and its associated learning gains.
We are convinced that the five-term year would represent a change for the better based on sound educational principles. We do not expect everyone to agree but hope that the coming debate will be rational rather than emotive.
* Professor Brent Davies is head of the International Educational Leadership Centre in the University of Lincolnshire and Humberside. He spent 10 years as a secondary teacher. Trevor Kerry is professor of education of the College of Teachers and research fellow with the Schools for the Future Project at Lincoln University Campus.
* FIVE TERM SUCCESS - Case study
Dixons City Technology College is about partnership - with industry, with parents, with the community. It is set in the "industrial heartland" of Bradford. It has a strong pastoral emphasis, setting out to cater for the individual needs of its mixed-ability intake. It is proud of its five-term year, which it adopted from its inception.
School runs from 8am to 5pm. Pupils arrive early and there is a good atmosphere. In the atrium pupils buzz with enthusiasm. All around posters and displays extol the arts, but learning is high-tech.
Our research required us to administer questionnaires to groups of students in Years 8 and 10, their parents and teachers who work three to five days more than staff in most other schools. All the students responded, as did 66 per cent of teachers and 75 per cent of parents.
Among Year 8 pupils, everyone believes they concentrate as well or better in the five-term year, all the boys think it has improved their test scores. Sixty per cent of boys believe it has improved their attitudes to school. The school has outstanding results, but no one can be sure of the relative parts played in these by the five-term year and other factors.
In Year 10 most pupils agree that concentration has improved as a result of the five-term year. About 80 per cent of Year 10 students think it has improved their view of school. Teachers' responses confirm the attitudinal shift.
Parents are positive. About 60 per cent report improved concentration, better memorisation of work, good attitudes to school. They comment on children's motivation for homework and praise the demise of dead periods at the end of long terms.
Parents like the even spread of the year, commenting favourably on the two-week breaks. Some of the problems the new academic year has created are irritating - such as clashes of calendar with siblings in other schools - but all are surmountable.