Why six is the new three

Alison Brace on the quiet death of the traditional three-term school year

The fierce debate over the introduction of a six-term year may have fizzled out, but behind the scenes it is quietly establishing itself as the norm.

According to the Local Government Association, which came up with the so-called "standard year", roughly half of all local authorities in England and Wales are now following its recommended term dates.

"Over the last five years, with the cooperation of often only one person in each local authority who understands the school year, we have got quite a lot of standardisation," said Chris Price, chairman of the LGA's term dates reference group.

"This is not something that can be done in five or even 10 years, but we are gradually getting local authorities to come to an agreement about the principles of the standard year."

Those principles are a direct result of an independent commission established by the LGA in 2000 to look at how the school year could be overhauled. It recommended that:

* schools open as near to September 1 as possible;

* there should be two seven-week terms before Christmas, with a two-week break in between, and;

* there should be four terms of six weeks after Christmas, with a set two-week spring break irrespective of when Easter falls.

The argument goes that fixing a fortnight's holiday in October and April helps spread teachers' workload throughout the year and eases stress in schools.

However, although the LGA recommends term dates based on these principles to all 154 local authorities, it has no power to enforce them. Many local authorities are still protective of their historic right to choose a school timetable that reflects local priorities.

In spite of this, more and more local authorities are talking to their neighbours to standardise term dates. Cambridgeshire council, for instance, established the eastern regional term dates group in 2002, which has now grown to include Bedfordshire, Essex, Hertfordshire, Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Northamptonshire, Peterborough, Suffolk, Milton Keynes and Buckinghamshire.

The group, like many others across the country, tries to agree term dates that are in the spirit of the LGA's proposals.

In 2003, just 20 local authorities had agreed to implement a six-term year and it was the subject of heated debate at teacher union conferences. The NASUWT in particular argued that the proposals were nothing more than a ploy to alter teachers' conditions of service.

By the following year the union had thrashed out an agreement with the LGA and 45 local authorities, including 17 London boroughs, and agreed, in principle to introduce the proposals.

Twelve of them made the shift from the three-term system that year, affecting 1,500 schools. Since then, subsequent local authorities to join the six-termers have not been added to the LGA's website. There is, says the LGA, a good reason for this.

"In the intervening three years, local authorities have not necessarily taken the decision to introduce the standard school year through formal decision-making structures," said a spokeswoman. "A lot more are talking with neighbouring authorities about term dates. In many ways the standard year is being introduced by stealth."

Some authorities did not even realise that they had introduced it, she said, they just happened to agree dates with a neighbouring authority which was following the principles of the six-term year.

That is how the story goes in the South. But in the North, there is still considerable reluctance to adopt the six-term year - largely because in some years, such as 200708, it means Easter has to stand alone as a Bank Holiday weekend. "This is complete anathema to most northern authorities,"

said an LGA spokeswoman.

Members of the association's term dates group met in June and decided that officials from authorities in the South should visit some of their opposite numbers in the North to convince them of the merits of a more standardised year across the country.

It hopes that many will follow the example of authorities like Hampshire which have embraced the new approach to Easter. "Easter has to fall on the first Sunday after the last full moon in Lent. Some years it can be a whole three weeks earlier or later than the year before," says Melanie Saunders, secondary education policy officer for Hampshire county council. You are effectively using some pagan moon belief to schedule your school year. How silly is that?"

Hampshire consulted teachers on its proposals to let Easter stand alone as a Bank Holiday weekend in 200708. "Once we had bitten the bullet, our teachers said we are with you."

For many other authorities, however, 200708 will be a test of their resolve to stick to the principles of a six-term year. If they don't, staff will face an extremely short term before Easter and a lengthy summer one - the very imbalance the standard year tries to iron out.

Anomalies in school year patterns have a knock-on effect in the most unexpected quarters. In March this year, members of the LGA were called in to meet Geoff Hoon, then Leader of the House of Commons.

He was concerned that authorities across the country had chosen different half-term weeks in February. This meant that MPs from the South could not spend the break with their children, while those from the North could.

"We did point out to him that we were coming very much at it from teaching and learning perspective," said a spokeswoman. "Our objective was to even out length of terms because that makes for a smoother flow of learning, teaching and assessment.

"He was coming at it from the point of view that it was easier if everyone was on holiday at the same time."

That however, would require legislation, and the Government remains adamant it does not want to go down that route.

To some, though, quibbling over a half-term here or an Easter weekend there is not radical enough - they want to move to a year of five equal terms.

Six city technology colleges and two foundation schools have adopted a five-term year - an option which the independent commission found could only be introduced if legislation forced authorities to do so.

Homewood school and sixth-form centre, a 2,200-pupil foundation school in Tenterden in Kent has just completed its fifth year of a five-term system.

"We do think it's the better option," says vice-principal William Cotterell. "It's about creating a kind of learning rhythm so that everything is evened out across the year so that we have five terms of eight weeks each."

He said the two-week breaks gave teachers and students a genuine rest and the shorter summer holiday meant that learning loss was reduced.

"We do think it is great and everybody should go the same way, but different people will have a different range of pressures and a different relationship with their local authority."

So, for the moment, it is a quieter and less radical revolution which is changing the face of the school year. But it is a revolution nonetheless.

Maybe within the next five years the "standard year" will finally live up to its name.

Term dates for 20062007 as proposed by the LGA

September 4-October 20 November 1 to December 19

January 3 to February 16

February 26 to April 4

April 19 to May 25

June 4 to July 18

Proposed term dates for 20072008

September 3 to October 19

October 31 to December 19

January 3 to February 15

February 25 to April 4

April 21 to May 23

June 2 to July 18

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