Watered-down proposals for a six-term school year are likely to disappoint teachers, parents and pupils. Anat Arkin reports
The traditional three-term school year is on its way out in many local authorities - but the new structure looks little different from the old one.
The Local Government Association's commission on the organisation of the school year has watered down its original recommendations for a "standard" six-term year with a two-week break in October.
Under revised proposals, the 2004-5 school year will start with a training day on August 31. There will be another training day on January 4, but individual schools will decide when to hold the three remaining training days.
A break of seven school days in October (effectively replacing the half-term break) will divide terms 1 and 2. It is hoped this longer break will cut tiredness in the long run-up to Christmas, thus reducing pupil and teacher absence.
The LGA is also suggesting that the date of Easter will no longer determine the spring holiday. So in 2005, this holiday would start four days after the Easter weekend, which falls on March 25-28.
But this has led to concerns that some parents will keep their children away from school between the bank holiday weekend and the start of the two-week break.
The National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers has attacked the proposals, saying they add up to "a lot of pain for no gain". In advice to its members, the union argued that the real agenda of those who want to change the school year is to alter teachers' conditions of service and eventually extend the working year.
But the LGA's recommendations have also come in for flak for not going far enough. Enthusiasts for more radical options - notably a five-term year - say an opportunity has been missed.
"Five terms of eight weeks each would make more sense and if you look at the schools operating a five-term year, they've proved that it works. I think it's a great shame that so many local authorities are going for a six-term year," said Gareth Matthewson, head of Whitchurch high school in Cardiff and president of the National Association of Head Teachers.
In Wales, all 22 LEAs have agreed as a first step to implement a standardised year on the current three-term pattern in 2004-5. But they are waiting for the results of further consultation with the LGA before introducing a six-term year.
In England, 19 LEAs have so far agreed "in principle" to implement the six-term year. But these include authorities, such as the London borough of Camden, that will not introduce the changes until they see what neighbouring boroughs do.
Birmingham, the country's largest LEA, plans to introduce change gradually over the next couple of years and is discussing co-ordinating term dates with adjoining authorities. Other large LEAs, including Hampshire, are also trying to move forward in tandem with neighbours so parents with children at schools in different authorities can plan holidays.
These efforts should produce some regional co-ordination in holiday dates. But it would take action by central government to bring about a truly standard school year - and ministers have made clear that this is not going to happen.
"There are enormous variations at the moment and we are hoping that over a period of years these recommendations will lead to greater standardisation," said former MP Chris Price, chairman of the commission on the school year, which was recently wound down.
Responding to complaints that, in trying to appease differing opinions, his commission ended up doing little more than tinkering with the present system, he added: "The option is to do something or do nothing."
More information on the standard school year at www.lga.gov.uk
DATES FOR YOUR DIARY
The LGA commission's recommended terms and holidays for 20045 are:
Trainingplanning day: Tues August 31
Term 1: Wed September 1 - Wed October 20
Holiday: Thurs October 21 - Fri October 29
Term 2: Mon November 1 - Tues December 21
Holiday: Wed December 22 - Mon January 3
Trainingplanning day: Tues January 4
Term 3: Wed January 5 - Fri February 11
Holiday: Mon February 14 - Fri February 18
Term 4: Mon February 21 - Fri March1 (Easter weekend March 25-28)
Holiday: Mon April 4- Fri April 15
Term 5: Mon April 18 - Fri May 27
Holiday: Mon May 30 - Fri June 3
Term 6: Mon June 6 - Tues July 19
Summer holiday : at least five weeks and one day