Slave to the rhythm

1st September 2000 at 01:00
Term dates should be set to curriculum ebbs and flows, rather than bank holidays and moveable feasts, writes Chris Price, whose report recommending a six-term year, is published today

FIXING the dates of school terms and holidays is a complicated science, understood by only a handful of experts in education offices and teachers' unions. The task involves fitting 190 teaching days around the ebbing and flowing patterns of Easter, weekends and bank holidays; with schools or education authority then adding five "Baker" days to complicate the result still further.

In France these calculations are decided in Paris; in England, for all the centralisation and regulation over 120 years of compulsory schooling, ministers have never wanted anything to do with them. For many years, councils fixed the arrangements for county schools and the churches for voluntary schools. When grant-maintained schools and city technology colleges appeared in the 1980s, they were encouraged to do their own thing. Four and five-term years began to appear, new (and cheaper) holiday fortnights emerged, summer holidays shrunk.

Ministers welcomed all this as "diversity" but parents with children at different schools were less impressed and wanted rather more standardisation. The positive element, however, in these new arrangements lay in the incentive it gave to the schools concerned to examine the annual rhythms of the schooling process. The school year was suddenly no longer an arid arithmetic function of teachers' contracted days and the peculiarities of each annual calendar but a more conscious attempt to create a coherent flow of learning, assessment and transfer.

It was in this context that the education authorities decided to set up a commission to look at the whole issue on a national (English) basis. To emphasise the independence of the commission, the Local Government Association decided not to give us any evidence on the issue, though many individual LEAs did, as well as teacher unions, parents' organisations and national tourism bodies. The Department for Education and Employment did not give us any evidence either, though it, the Department of Culture, Media and Sport and the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority provided observers.

Our first dilemma concerned practicalities. We were aware that the world of education was changing fast. Teachers' jobs involved management as well as teaching, teachers worked as hard for much of the holidays as they did in term time and, in further education, the whole concept of terms and holidays was disappearing fast. How radical should we be in the changes we proposed? We ultimately decided it should be incremental and realistic and that we shouldnot seek to anticipate the future; so we produced a report which would fit the status quo while making space for future developments.

We took the same approach towards "five-term year" experiments. While admiring the care with which they had been established, we did not believe they provided a feasible pattern for a smoother and more standardised national system. We decided that the number of terms was less important than the activities which took place within them.

In the same pragmatic spirit, we decided that the "so called" three-term year had long disappeared in English schools. All half-terms now last at least a week. In fact, we decided, England has had a six-term year for a long time and we made this reality our starting point.

We then tried to test possible recommendations not only against feasibility and a measure of standardisation but also against three of the Government's current imperatives - modernisation (not simply doing things because that's the way it has always been done); "joined-up-government" (trying to consider the needs of all those affected); and social inclusion (very roughly, the prayer book principle of putting down the mighty and exalting the humble).

On this basis, our recommendations have built incremental changes into the existing pattern of schooling. It means starting term five in early April, irrespective of the incidence of Easter, and making it an "assessment term" for SATs, GCSE and A-level. Term six in June should become a transition term where individual activities for pupils can be concentrated - especially recovery programmes for slower learners - positioning the summer holiday a little earlier while maintaining its current duration, and producing a longer break in the autumn term. As bonuses, there should be better weather for the summer holidays, exams shifted out of the worst of the hay fever season, less stress and exclusions in the run-up to Christmas and applications to college and university on a far less expensive and complicated basis using real results instead of estimated ones.

Our proposals will not be statutory; foundation and voluntary schools and LEAs can still try to go it alone. But after a full year's inclusive nationwide consultation, we hope a system will emerge which recommends national starting and finishing dates for each, term while allowing schools and LEAs to build in elements of regional and local flexibility.

Christopher Price is a former chair of the Commons Select Committee on Education and currently edits The Stakeholder. The report costs pound;20 and is available from LGA selling agents and IDeA publications, Layden House, 76 86 Turnmill Street, London EC1M 5LG, tel 0207296 6600

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