Let's take the heat off our summer break obsession and give the rest of the year - and a lot of pupils - a chance

5th August 2011 at 01:00

Whatever we might say about Michael Gove, he certainly asks good questions. He is the education secretary since Keith Joseph most likely to ask questions that are obvious and radical enough to challenge the system.

He has done it again with the length of the summer break. His assertion that we might allow schools to rethink August has drawn largely negative comment, but it is surely worth considering.

The school system's use of time is something that has rarely been looked at properly. Thirty or so years ago, Kenneth Baker insisted on teachers working 1,265 hours per year, and at a stroke reduced the amount of time many teachers put into after-school activity such as sport, drama and music. Amazingly, much has grown back again.

David Blunkett insisted on a non-statutory hour being spent on literacy and also numeracy. Ed Balls' Every Child Matters agenda built momentum in the developing breakfast club and after-school club provision. The teacher unions negotiated important agreements over PPA time. Some local authorities have reconfigured the year, playing with four or five terms, but have left August alone.

So the structure of the school year remains one of those time and energy traps - a place where much debate leads to little change.

Historically, our English school year starts with a near four-month stretch through autumn so that nearly half the required time is committed by the turn of the calendar year. We then spread the rest of the time through a spring with a movable Easter, leaving the first half of the summer term often a blink, with a bank holiday Monday and a couple of elections knocking out a Thursday or two. In Years 6 and 11, the tone of the year changes as testing stops.

There are many myths about the school year's provenance. The pattern of the harvest is a favourite but not very solid: the people who drove the beginnings of our public-school system did not really need their children home to help with harvest as they had workers for that. The universities, though, needed time to assess the results of their entrance examinations so that they could organise their new autumn intake. The school holidays mirrored the pattern of Parliament, with the long summer break for the wealthy of the time.

Indeed, the long summer holiday was essential for public schools so that children could do proper things with their parents like go on the grand tour of Europe, join a safari, learn to shoot things, and visit museums and theatres. After that, schools would "top up" the pupils' education by teaching them things beyond their families' scope.

The summer break remains a chance to learn about the real world. The broader a child's outside school experience, the easier it is to learn in the artificial world of the classroom.

Certainly, the subjects in the English Baccalaureate are more accessible when life's experiences pave the way and you go to school to be "topped up".

But school is, for too many, an oasis of order in their chaotic lives. A break of six weeks can represent misery as well as a lack of learning rhythm.

And why stop at August? Let's rethink time in school, too. If the leadership of a school wanted to maximise resources, it might think about putting children in cohorts who would attend on a 13-week cycle: five weeks on, one off, five on, and two off. They would have four cycles in a 52-week year. With four or more cohorts of children, we would see a school with non-stop, year-long learning. But at least a fifth of the pupils would be on holiday at any one time.

The school could close around Christmas and the new year, as well as bank holidays and the additional festivals of its children such as Eid and Diwali. The big impact would be at least a 20 per cent increase in the availability of facilities like laboratories, gymnasia or resources such as musical instruments and science or art equipment.

Teachers and other staff would be in cohorts, too, with 20 per cent on holiday even though the school remained in action. A result would be that the school was always afresh with folk returning and the collective fatigue in the lurch to the end of term would disappear. It would give the most challenged children a better run-up to Sats (which we should be honest about and start calling "the School Accountability Tests").

But why stop there? Some schools already run differently shaped days, but usually they are seen as odd. The shape of retailing has changed beyond recognition over a generation. Maybe schools could offer their learning and the learner becomes a genuine customer, persuaded to come again or lured elsewhere.

Could a child not be allocated 190 days per year to use wherever? They could cash them in for learning at a school where they feel they are getting what they need and change whenever.

Why do we sign up to a school for so many years? We don't do the same with banks, energy suppliers, garages, doctors or solicitors. We change retailers regularly, often for convenience.

Of course, any change would have its problems and challenges to address. Here, these would include that August-born people would have no excuse, while the holiday industry would struggle because there would be no high season.

It would be hard to come to terms with for many teachers because it is different and many do not like change ...

But let's talk about it.

Mick Waters is professor of education at Wolverhampton University but writes here in a personal capacity (and he is on holiday because it is August).

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