We're not over the moon about Easter

21st March 2008 at 00:00
It's time to break with tradition and sort out the chaos of managing the Easter holidays

It is time that local authorities in England and Wales sorted out the Easter holidays. About one third of schools are in the middle of their spring break, while the others are having a long weekend before returning to school and taking a two-week holiday in early April.

The two-week Easter holiday is this year spread across five weeks. Some families have no overlap in their holidays, except for the Easter weekend. This presents real difficulties for those whose children attend schools in different authorities. It is also a problem for couples who teach in different areas and for teachers whose children attend school in another authority. We are supposed to be promoting good family life, not making it more difficult. And, unless local authorities take co-ordinated action, the situation will be as bad in 2011.

The problem is, of course, the date of Easter, which falls on the first Sunday following the first full moon after the spring equinox. However, it is not quite as simple as that, since the full moon here is the ecclesiastical full moon, not the astronomical version.

This means Easter Sunday can be as early as March 22 and as late as April 25 - more than a month's difference, which can play havoc with exam and learning schedules.

This year, Easter is only one day after its earliest date, a situation that does not occur again until 2160. In 2011, however, it falls on April 24, just one day before its last possible date. That is a more immediate problem: authorities will soon be planning the 2010-11 academic year.

The case against the traditional holiday in 2011 when Easter is so late is overwhelming. The euphemistically named "spring" term would be a record 15 weeks long, while the first half of the summer term would be just four weeks - actually, 19 school days because of the May Day bank holiday. This would be insufficient for the examinations that take place during that period, which alone is sufficient argument for change.

The need for co-ordination between authorities is clear. But, if they are to decide on a consistent holiday calendar across the country, that could be either the traditional two-week break around Easter, or the standard school year proposed by a Local Government Association (LGA) commission, of which I was a member, in 2004.

What we wanted to introduce was a six-term year which would enable schools and authorities to ignore the pendulum of Easter. Terms would be of a consistent length and would carry on regardless. Easter would sometimes fall in the spring holiday or it would be a long bank holiday outside the annual two-week break.

So, in 2011, as in every other year, the standard year would have six weeks in each of terms three and four (which would come after Christmas), with six weeks also in term five, the first half of the existing summer term.

As a headteacher in an authority that stuck rigidly to the traditional holiday pattern, I was frequently dismayed by the way in which the uneven length of the terms disrupted the rhythm of school life. Very long spring terms were exhausting and invariably led to an increase in exclusions as staff and students alike became more tired.

The ensuing short first half of the summer term meant that examinations were upon us as soon as term started and before Year 11 students were properly prepared, intellectually and emotionally, for the rigours of the long examinations season. Those years when we had a very short spring term were equally bad. Pupils had made insufficient progress by the time of the early Easter and never seemed to make up for it in what seemed like an interminable pre-examination period in April and May.

The standard school year proposals are not as revolutionary as they may appear. In eight or nine years out of every 10, Easter will fall within the standard year spring break, either on the first or final weekends or in the middle. Inconveniently for schools, tradition has demanded that the Easter weekend falls in the middle.

Only in one or two years in each decade does Easter occur outside the spring break: 2008 and 2011 are the most extreme examples at the start of the 21st century.

Church schools like to retain a two-week holiday around Easter. But the LGA commission I served on found evidence of a lot of church support for keeping children in school during Holy Week, where they would be better prepared for Easter than if they spent the week at home. Like it or not, in the 21st-century most homes regard Easter as little more than an opportunity for two extra bank holidays for shopping.

Of course, the answer may yet come from the churches. In 1997, the World Council of Churches proposed a reform of the 1582 agreement on the date of Easter, but this was not adopted anywhere. Other clergy have advocated breaking the link with the lunar cycle and fixing Easter as the second Sunday in April.

Parliament could play its part by implementing the Easter Act of 1928, which allowed Easter to be fixed.

The other main recommendation of the LGA commission - a two-week break in October - has also been adopted in some parts of the country, but not others. The longer October holiday makes a material difference, benefiting both young people and their teachers in the run-up to Christmas. That too should be adopted universally across England and Wales.

Other commission recommendations are for a longer timescale - term five as an assessment term, with earlier publication of examination results and a post-qualification applications process to university. At least Christmas is always on the same date.

John Dunford, is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders.

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