Third Of Academies Want To Change School Year, Survey Finds
Should The Summer Holidays Be Made Shorter?
On 28th March 2012 the results of a survey of 500 English academies were announced, revealing that as many as a third of them are planning to change the school year from the current standard of three terms with a long Summer break. There has been much discussion not to say controversy over proposed changes to school terms in recent years as this is not the first time that such plans have been raised. But is the current term schedule the fairest for all concerned?
Most education professionals would agree that the long summer holidays result in some students, particularly those from deprived backgrounds regressing to one degree or another in their learning resulting in their need to relearn portions of what they have already been taught. But, is it fair to deprive today’s students of the joys of Summer that we benefited from? Whilst some children do find themselves getting bored towards the end of the holidays others are more than happy to recharge their mental and physical batteries and take a break from the pressures of homework and studies. It is also generally accepted that the reasons children from deprived backgrounds are more likely to slip back educationally during the Summer are a lack of mental stimulation and family quality time that would be provided by their parents. This is something which is not the case with children from middle class and more wealthy families whose parents tend to use the time to introduce them to a wide variety of new experiences. So surely, the answer is for local authorities and charities to step in and provide poorer children with similar life enhancing experiences rather than penalise the majority of children from middle and higher income families by shortening everybody’s holidays. This would appear to be the case judging by the content of a discussion in the Guardian last July between a parent and teacher on this topic. The teacher’s (Francis Gilbert) response to the parent was as follows:
Yes, I concede your point that we know that poorer children can suffer a “dip” in their academic performance over the summer, but this issue is much more complex than it first appears. In some boroughs, such as Tower Hamlets, where I live, the poorest children’s academic performance has actually significantly improved in recent years for a number of reasons, one of which has been the improved provision that the borough has provided during the summer holidays.
Activities such as tennis, canoeing, trips away and film-making are all now offered free of charge during this time. The point is that the activities are voluntary. I firmly believe that giving children this choice about what to do really helps them establish a firmer sense of identity and autonomy. Poorer children have benefited massively. Let’s help all areas provide this wealth of activities that raise aspirations rather than locking children up in school all summer.
At Kip McGrath Scunthorpe we run a Summer School during the four weeks of August each year. We provide tuition for students who wish to keep their hand in and their brain active during the Summer. For most students this will result them in attending for just four 80 minute sessions out of the whole holiday period and it has proven extremely beneficial for those who are enrolled with us for catch up tutoring. Therefore, from the perspective of the children, if the right support is in place for deprived students and those who are already falling behind there is no real need to shorten the summer holidays.
Teachers are against the proposed changes, but this is not due, as the critics would have you believe, to a stubbornness to maintain the status quo and pure self-interest at the expense of children and parents. As a non-professional (Centre Manager at Kip McGrath Scunthorpe) I have been privileged to witness the state education system from the inside. The number of hours that most teachers work during term time involves either staying at school very late or taking large amounts of paperwork home with them. This high workload is increased even further at report-writing time each year. The majority of teachers work far in excess of their contracted hours on a regular basis without being paid overtime. The long summer break without having to work at all helps to make up for this by allowing them, like the students to mentally and physically recharge. If the holidays are to be shortened then the issue of teachers’ workloads will need to be addressed as part of this process. Figures from September 2010 show that approximately 50% of newly qualified teachers quit teaching within five years of entering the profession. Their feelings are summed up by Gaster, a commenter from a Guardian column in January of 2012:
I teach for 25 hours in a 35 hour week. The ten hours when I’m not actually in the classroom are all filled up with marking online registers (a joke – they were supposed to save time but actually take longer since we still have to complete the same old paper registers as well as the online ones), completing reviews/reports, dealing with other admin duties and, of course, marking. I routinely do about 2 hours of unpaid overtime, finishing my marking and preparing lessons, every night. That is also what I do with my Sundays.
I know I could be a better teacher if I didn’t have to spend so much time on mundane admin duties. From a headteacher’s point of view (in my experience) it is always possible to add yet another layer of unread paperwork, but it is never possible to take one away.
It’s that simple. Give us the time to prepare lessons. Not all teachers are prepared to do all that unpaid work at home, and I can’t say I blame them. It’s no wonder that lessons can be a bit un-inspiring when staff aren’t allowed sufficient time to prepare. The excessive unpaid overtime is one of the major reasons why so many newly qualified teachers quit within a few years of taking up their first teaching posts.
At least one free school is already running for six days a week, fifty-one weeks of the year and any growing trend or policy that burdens teachers with fewer breaks and increased workloads can only serve to exacerbate this appalling situation. In addition, over-tired and stressed professionals who are not functioning at their best will be unable to provide students with the highest standard of education. Furthermore, it will become increasingly difficult to build up a core of high quality, experienced teachers to replace those retiring, thereby reducing education standards further down the line.
Some parents have perfectly understandable reasons for wishing to see the summer holidays shortened and the school breaks more evenly distributed throughout the year. These include childcare (cost of and logistics of arranging), cost of keeping their children entertained and the difficulties of booking leave at the same time as their partners at a time when so many other people want time off work. The final and perhaps biggest reason is the spike in prices by holiday providers and airlines due to the peak demand for their services. But do all these complaints hold water? Whilst the issues over childcare for such a long period appear to be valid, in most cases there would be no less school holidays across the year so the cost of school holiday childcare would not be reduced, merely spread out across the year. If this made it easier for cash strapped families to budget for child care then that has to be a valid consideration. Equally, if it makes it easier for parents to book their annual leave together this is another sound reason for moving to an increased number of shorter breaks throughout the year. That being said, unless the tourism industry was prepared to remove its peak and off-peak pricing policies in line with the more evenly distributed periods of higher demand then the costs of holidays would not diminish. My worry is that they would take advantage of the smaller peaks in demand created by the newly arranged school holidays and no financial gain would be made for hard-pressed families.
There are gains and losses for all concerned. But if re-arranging the school terms were to improve the economy by more evenly distributing the tourism revenue throughout the year thus creating steadier jobs for those concerned and make it easier for parents and children to spend quality time together then it is worth considering as a realistic option.
There are however, two factors which must be taken into account.
- It is not a worthwhile long-term strategy if you do not seek to reduce the administration burden on teachers in return for removing their much-needed summer break. Increasing the length of school days and extending the school week to six days will do nothing to achieve this goal.
- The ability of schools to be able to set their own term dates needs to be rethought urgently. Even where neighbouring LEAs operate different holidays to one another problems can occur for families living close the borders of the authorities concerned. If individual schools within the same towns were working to dissimilar schedules chaos could ensue if siblings in different schools were on holiday at separate times.
It may well be that in these straitened times our children will have to sacrifice their halcyon days of Summer for the greater good, but given the limited potential gains economically and educationally is it really a price worth paying?