“I couldn’t be a teacher because I simply wouldn’t know what to do with all that time.”
So joked comedian Al Murray as he hosted this year’s Tes Schools Awards, savouring the round of jeers he knew would come from the hundreds of teachers surrounding him.
It is the kind of ribbing that teachers are all too familiar with, but what is meant as light-hearted banter from friends and family can quickly become altogether more tiresome.
Research published this week found that teachers expect to work for eight days of this year’s summer holiday, on average, while heads anticipate spending 11 days working.
The survey, by Education Support Partnership, also found that more than half of teachers spend their holiday worrying “to a large extent” about the amount of preparation needed for the next academic year.
And with the spotlight on teacher workload, mental health and wellbeing shining brighter than ever before, many will have derived cold comfort from the confirmation earlier this year of what they already knew: the long hours teachers work during term time “substantially exceed” the extra time they have off for holidays. The study by the National Foundation for Educational Research said that this would hold true even if teachers did not work during the breaks (see bit.ly/TeachingHours).
We can work it out
In any case, long holidays for teachers are no longer a given. The traditional pattern of three terms with two weeks for Christmas and Easter, six over the summer and three one-week half-term breaks, varies from area to area and, in some cases, from school to school.
Why are some schools departing from the long-standing norm, or considering whether to make a change? At the crux of the matter is a complex interplay of factors: teacher workload, childcare costs, academic achievement and the cost of family holidays.
At the Free School Norwich, summer holidays have been condensed to four weeks, largely to help working parents. Other schools have extended the school day and reduced long breaks to fit in extra learning (see case studies, opposite and page 15).
While some schools have pioneered new approaches, not all have such flexibility. Academies and free schools can set their own term dates. So can the governing bodies of foundation schools, voluntary aided schools and foundation special schools. But when it comes to schools that are local authority maintained or voluntary controlled, and maintained special schools and nursery schools, it is the local authority that sets term dates.
That is something ministers have previously sought to change. In April 2013, Michael Gove ridiculed the traditional school year as being one that was designed for an agricultural economy. “That world no longer exists and we can’t afford to have an education system that was essentially set in the 19th century,” he said.
Months later, the government promised to move from rhetoric to reality, publishing a plan that would grant all schools the power to set their own school years.
The idea prompted a mixed reaction. For some, it would have allowed schools to spread their holidays throughout the year, countering the concentrated peak season during which families and teachers pay through the nose for breaks that would otherwise have been thousands of pounds cheaper. It would also have reduced the incentive for parents to pull their children out of school for unauthorised term-time trips.
And for teachers familiar with the “summer learning loss” phenomenon, a shorter break held out the hope that their pupils would return in September having forgotten less of what they had been taught the previous term.
For others, the proposal was an attack on something that compensated teachers for their hard work during term, and had the potential to cause holiday chaos and childcare nightmares for parents with children at schools with different holiday dates.
Let it be
In the event, although the Deregulation Bill finally became law in 2015, the government has not brought into effect its proposal to let all schools set their term and holiday days. So despite the sound and fury, the law today stands as it did when Gove first criticised the traditional school year.
Even if the right to set individual term times had been extended to all schools, it is not clear whether many would have used these powers; thousands of academies already have the freedom to do so, but the government’s own research suggests they rarely do. A 2014 study found that only 4 per cent of academies had changed the length of school terms.
Three years later, a study by the same researcher found an uptick in the proportion of academies changing the length of school terms: 6 per cent of multi-academy trusts said most of their schools had done this, while 11 per cent of single-academy trusts had done the same. But altering the academic year ranked far below other freedoms academies were making use of, such as school leadership, or changing procurement or the curriculum.
And some schools that the Department for Education had previously highlighted for having introduced a new school year have later reversed course.
In 2012, a DfE press release, celebrating a tenfold increase in the number of academies, drew attention to Leeds’ David Young Community Academy and its seven-term academic year that started in June and ended in May with a four-week summer break. Since going into special measures in 2015 and being rebrokered to a new academy trust, and renamed the Bishop Young Church of England Academy, it has returned to a more traditional system.
Then there is the question of whether strong evidence exists that proves longer holidays are detrimental to pupils’ studies; the research on summer learning loss is not clear cut, especially in the UK context.
As Lee Elliot Major, chief executive of the Sutton Trust charity, which aims to improve social mobility through education, wrote in 2015, the phenomenon has been “well documented” in the US, where the summer break can last three months. But he points out that some high-performing countries have long breaks, such as Finland, while others have short breaks, including Hong Kong and Singapore.
That confused picture was hardly cleared up by researchers at Northumbria University, who last year found a mixed picture when they examined the effects of a seven-week summer break on 77 primary-aged children from deprived backgrounds in Scotland and North East England. In spelling, they found “summer learning loss occurred, or at least stagnation in learning”, but after seven weeks of teaching, the children had caught up and exceeded their level prior to the break. However, they also found that “the summer holiday period did not result in a loss of word-reading skill”.
Here comes the sun
And how much demand is there for shorter summer holidays from those most affected: teachers, pupils and parents? Two years ago, Tes teamed up with First News, a children’s newspaper, and Mumsnet to find out.
Nearly eight out of 10 teachers said they did not believe the summer holidays were too long, with 61 per cent of parents in agreement. And 85 per cent of pupils said that they were happy with the long summer break (see bit.ly/SurveySummer).
But this does not mean the issue is settled. As well as the changes that individual free schools, in particular, have made to the traditional academic year, some local authorities are exploring more evolutionary changes across all their schools.
In 2019-20, summer holidays in Nottinghamshire will be shortened to five weeks, with a two-week holiday introduced in October.
When the county council consulted residents over their plans, a split between parents and teachers emerged. Three-fifths of the nearly 5,000 parents who responded supported the shorter summer break, compared with 55 per cent of the 1,419 teachers and heads who preferred the longer summer holiday. The councillors went with the former.
And the Isle of Wight will make a similar change in 2019-20, although the council said it would review the situation annually.
So while many teachers will now be reading this at their leisure during a long summer holiday, it is far from certain whether they will be able to do so in the years ahead.