Wednesday, June 30, 1999 Published at 11:49 GMT
Five-term year might still be on
Local authorities have not so far changed to five-term years
East Sussex finally rejected calls for a five-term school year, when the full county council met on Tuesday. Councillors decided to reconsider the idea in a year's time, in light of developments elsewhere.
BBC Education Correspondent Mike Baker looks at the arguments surrounding the possible introduction of more frequent, shorter terms and the end of the long summer holiday.
Is the five-term year education's latest "big idea"? Its supporters have had mixed news recently. The biggest disappointment came when East Sussex council decided not to go ahead with changes to the school year after a large-scale public consultation revealed overwhelming hostility to the idea.
Bradley Park Junior School is a "failing" school which is about to come off "special measures". It will re-open under a new name - Woodlands - in September and will follow a pattern of five eight-week terms.
The head teacher, Tom Wilson, says his main motivation is to overcome the exhaustion felt by staff and pupils, towards the end of the current long terms. He believes the current one-week half-term holiday is not long enough for proper "recovery" whereas the two-week break between the new shorter terms will give teachers time to recharge their batteries.
Overwhelmingly in favour
Unlike parents and teachers in East Sussex, parents and staff at Bradley Park Junior School were overwhelmingly in favour of the change. The school now joins Greensward School in Essex, a 1,400 pupil comprehensive, which will begin a five-term year pattern from January 2000.
Greensward will follow the pattern of five eight-week long terms with two-week breaks in October, at Christmas, in March and May. The current summer holidays will be reduced from around six to four weeks and the traditional Easter holiday will become a long weekend. However, the total number of school days will remain the same.
So, is the five-term year ball starting to roll or is the East Sussex experience a sign that the majority of parents and teachers are reluctant to change the traditional school year? A recent conference at London University's Institute of Education found no easy answers.
Opening the day conference, Professor Peter Mortimore, Director of the Institute, set the scene by welcoming the decision of those councils and schools which had started the debate. He said education faced such a rapidly developing world that it could not afford to simply set its face against change.
'Summer learning loss'
Referring to research from the USA which suggested a five-term year could reduce the so-called "summer learning loss" experienced by many pupils, Professor Mortimore acknowledged that this evidence, while interesting, may not be transferable to Britain where the summer breaks are shorter. He argued that this was now an "ideal situation for an experiment" in the UK so we could collect our own evidence.
Chris McDonnell, head teacher of Fulfen Primary School in Staffordshire, said the argument for change "must be driven by what is best for the children". He said that while the unions were right to be cautious and to protect the interests of teachers, he was "a bit disappointed" by the initial reaction of some union leaders.
Mr McDonnell said the government appeared to be taking a neutral view on the five-term year, waiting for others to make the moves. However he welcomed this as an opportunity for a welcome move to change being "bottom-up rather than top-down".
Representatives of the teacher unions were wary of change. Chris Keats of the NASUWT welcomed the "honesty about the lack of evidence" of the educational advantages of the five-term year. Her union took the view that any moves in this direction should be discussed at a national, not a local, level.
Sheila Dainton of the ATL union said her union too was worried about individual schools "going it alone". While her union had done a lot of work on the five-term year, she was coming to the view that "we could waste a lot of energy on a debate that is about structures of education not the processes of learning".
David Triggs, head teacher of Greensward School, had no such doubts. He urged educationalists to be more willing to innovate or, as he put it, "to think outside the box". He was moving his school to a five-term year because he saw educational advantages in shorter, more even terms with regular recovery breaks for staff and pupils.
He said under the new arrangements all his year groups, except Year 7, would start their academic year in June. This way the end of the summer term, and the summer break, would not be wasted time.
The conference also heard how the consultation process had gone in East Sussex. The council's Assistant Director of Education, Matt Dunkley, said the council had received over 23,000 responses (as he put it, a bigger turn-out than the European elections). All groups - parents, teachers and governors - had rejected the five-term year by around three to one.
He acknowledged the council had made mistakes and felt it would have been better if they had set out to mount a longer and slower effort to persuade teachers of the value of a change before broadening the consultation.
He said the council had run up against "an urban myth" that an eight week term would be too long for five to seven-year-olds, whereas in fact this was only a few days different from the length of the current half-terms. However he felt this argument had weighed heavily with primary school teachers.
Despite East Sussex's experience, the majority view of the conference was that there was still a case for a pilot scheme to provide evidence of the advantages and disadvantages of the five-term year. Most felt any such pilot should be broader than an individual school. Paul Bagley from Newham council said a number of London authorities were currently looking into the possibility of just that.