Three-term year is numbered

17th July 1998 at 01:00
THIS is the season newspapers ring up people like me and ask us to write an article saying: Isn't it terrible to have a six-week hole in the summer when working parents pull their hair out trying to patch together childcare arrangements and their children kick their heels at home, getting into mischief and forgetting everything they were taught last year? While the teachers, of course, slob around enjoying the kind of long, lazy vacation the rest of us can only ever dream of.

This year I declined to write such an article for another newspaper. Not because the arguments have changed, but because they seem to me already half-won.

Five summers ago I was writing about a year-round elementary school in Chicago with all the wonder of an African explorer describing the rare and extraordinary quagga. Last summer I was ringing around our homegrown experts to ask if it was ever going to happen here. This summer the debate has seeped on to the streets - I've overheard vernacular versions on a train, and among a group of primary-school mothers. This may not be what readers staggering towards the last day of term will want to hear - but the shape of the school year is no longer set in stone. The summer holiday is no longer sacrosanct. The genie is out of the bottle, and is unlikely to go back.

Consider how far we've come in the past few years. Already more schools are following non-traditional timetables, including more than a dozen city technology colleges working to a five-term year.

Education action zones have been encouraged to throw out traditional working practices and in announcing plans for longer school days, Saturday schools and summer support classes are already showing that institutional education can be more flexible than was previously thought. Meanwhile, the march of modular and on-line learning is making it clear that these days education is something that is always out there, whether it's term-time or not.

At the same time our view of the summer is changing fast. Once it was a two-month spell of torpor, when nothing much stirred except Open University students off to make whoopee at their notorious summer schools. Even just a few years back, parents had to search hard and book early if they wanted to get their children onto a playscheme or activity course. Now, although provision remains patchy, the summer is well on the way to becoming a kind of fourth term in many people's school year.

Rich kids are packed off to crammers, or on expensive extension courses. Middle-class families head for hand-crafted summer schools, while a growing number of holiday schemes offer structured programmes of crafts, sports and visits for children whose parents are at work. Last summer saw the first batch of government-backed summer schools, with many more to come if the national childcare strategy comes to fruition, and even the Teacher Training Agency wants to get in on the act with summer schools for graduates who want to be teachers, and updating courses for those already in the classroom.

Inch by inch, we are breaking away from our rigid three-term thinking and turning towards a more flexible future.

And - just as with shopping hours, when after the introduction of late-night shopping, then came seven-day-a-week shopping - so it will be with our perception of the school year. Once we have grown used to breakfast clubs, and homework schemes, and summer schools, we will almost certainly start to question further.

Why this exhausting autumn term, this frantic crescendo of activity in July, this fallow summer, during which children forget what they've been taught (especially those crucial children - as Office for Standards in Education data suggests - transferring from primaries to secondaries)?

Why should school start at nine and stop at four? Why can't all schools standardise their holidays? And what sense is there in having those expensive buildings, and all their equipment, lying idle for three months of the year?

The answer offered by teacher leaders is because it's always been like this, the educational undergrowth of exams, resits and university admissions has grown up thick around it, and it would be far too expensive to change.

But that kind of argument seems unlikely to hold up in the long term. As Edmund Burke pointed out, back in the 18th century, you cannot plan the future by the past.

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