OF all the possible structures for the academic year, one of the least convincing has to be the one we have, determined as it is by the “moveable feast” of Easter – an annual festival ignored by the majority of the population and argued over even by Christians.
Leaving aside May Day, and other single-day holidays, last session’s calendar saw terms of eight, nine, 11 and 12 weeks respectively, while the pattern for this session is a less-evenly distributed one of eight, nine, 14 and nine.
What we need in schools, more than ever before, is some stability, and one idea would be to introduce a standard four-term session of 10 weeks per term, with a four-week summer holiday, and breaks of two to three weeks in spring, autumn and mid-winter. Allocating five more single-day holidays would still give local flexibility, recognising religious festivals where appropriate, and enable us to look afresh at ways of celebrating the renewed confidence in our own cultural heritage (national one-day holiday for Burns Day on January 25?).
Teaching is physically demanding, requiring quite an intense dramatic performance each working day, and the consistency of a 10-week term with regular periods of recovery would allow teachers to perform at their best. Ask any successful athlete and they will tell you that recovery is a vital part of their training; ask any teacher and they will tell you that to go beyond 10 weeks a term is a recipe for increased stress, fatigue, loss of performance and confrontation with pupils. How often do we see a lot of hard work and exam preparation wasted because the spring term is too long, teachers are burned out, and pupils go “over the top” in their preparations, becoming tired and stale in the process?
Another clear advantage of a fixed term is that planning is made easier and regular blocks of work mean an even pace throughout the session. The current variations in the length of spring and summer terms make it more difficult for teachers to judge the pace, with unit assessments and folio submissions often completed in a rush to meet the Easter holiday deadline, or delayed so much they begin to interfere with work for external exams.
For senior pupils, the final examinations should be the culmination of a year’s work and the opportunity to demonstrate what they have learned. They should also mark the end of the academic session, and a fixed term which ends in mid-June would allow for this, given that the examination diet is unlikely to move significantly from today’s position. Currently, valuable learning and teaching time is lost in June, through teachers trying to introduce courses to tired pupils who may or may not reappear in their classes in August or who, more likely, are on family holidays.
And just to add to the confusion and frustration, most schools retain the previous session’s year group titles for registration, leading to frequent references to “my old/new third year section” and to teachers being asked to write forward plans for classes which have not quite arrived while completing records of work for those still not quite left.
With senior pupils on study leave for the last four weeks of the session, teachers would be able to focus on the junior school, to review Standard grade and national courses at the most appropriate time, and to prepare resources for the next session. In the longer term (no pun intended), teachers may be more likely to consider offering what used to be traditional end-of-year activities, such as concerts and dramatic productions. These experiences have been greatly under-rated but highly valued by everyone who has taken part in them.
Finally, pleasant as it is to look forward to those long summer holidays, could it be that the loss of momentum in educational terms, and the consequent pressure of work at other times, is too high a price? In any event, complaints about reducing the main holiday of the year to a mere four weeks are likely to win little sympathy from people outside the profession.
As raising levels of attainment in schools becomes more political, the hunt for new initiatives intensifies, adding to an already bulging workload. However, as Boxer, the loyal carthorse in Orwell’s Animal Farm (motto: “I will work harder”) discovered, working harder and longer does not always result in improved conditions. Working smarter may well have saved him from the knacker’s yard.
This article was first published in TES on 27 Septmber 2002.