Should The Summer Holidays Be Made Shorter?

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?

Children

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

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.

Parents

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.

Conclusion

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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?

Education System Could Be Completely Privatised By 2015, Union Predicts

Education System Could Be Completely Privatised By 2015, Union Predicts

The Guardian World News|by Hélène Mulholland

Downhills primary school

The government has come under renewed attack for trying to force Downhills primary school in north London, to turn into an academy. Photograph: David Levene

England’s education system risks being completely privatised within three years, the leader of one of the country’s largest teaching unions has predicted.

Christine Blower, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers (NUT), whose union will strike in the capital over teachers’ pensions on Wednesday, said the trade union movement could be haunted by “the spectre of a completely privatised education service by the end of the coalition’s first term in government” unless it took significant action.

Blower said she was alarmed by the pace at which ministers wanted schools to cut links with their local authorities and become academies and free schools.

Academies and free schools are accountable to the education secretary, rather than their local authority and have greater freedom to change the timings of the school day, teachers’ pay and the subjects they teach.

Some 40% of secondary schools in England are now academies, and Michael Gove, the education secretary, has recently come under renewed attack for forcing Downhills, a primary school in north London, to turn into an academy.

Blower said: “Unless we, as the trade union movement, in conjunction with community campaigning, are able to mount a significant campaign … to put the brake on this and unless the Liberal Democrats start behaving consistently with their own policy, which is to oppose academies and free schools, there is the spectre of a completely fragmented and privatised [education] service that is not in anybody’s interest,” she said.

Blower said her union was examining whether it was possible to use the tribunal system to challenge the government’s moves to force schools to become academies.

Delegates at the National Union of Teachers’ annual conference in Torquay next week will call for industrial action against academies in some parts of the country. Others will argue that academies represent “the biggest attack yet on comprehensive education by any national government”.

The NUT and the University and College Union, which represents lecturers, are staging a London-wide strike on Wednesday against government plans they claim make their members “pay more, work longer and get less in retirement”.

Teachers will have to contribute 50% more to their pensions over the next three years at a time when top earners can look forward to a cut in the 50p top rate of tax, said Blower.

She will tell strikers the pension changes are “nothing short of a tax on public sector workers, given that teachers’ pensions are sustainable”.

The NUT leader warned that government proposals to award teachers a different salary according to where they live would become a “very big issue”. This would lead to pay cuts at a time when teachers were already in the throes of a two-year pay freeze on top of the controversial pension changes, she said.

George Osborne, the chancellor, confirmed in his budget statement last week that he wanted to see public sector pay “more responsive to local pay rates” to help the private sector to fill jobs and expand.

But the NUT has warned that any move away nationally set rates for the job would lead to a major shortfall in teachers prepared to work in some parts of the country

University Admissions Changes Are Scrapped

University Admissions Changes Are Scrapped

The Guardian World News |by Jessica Shepherd

The changes would have allowed students to apply to university after receiving their A-level results

The proposed changes would have allowed students to apply to university after receiving their A-level results. Photograph: Linda Nylind for the Guardian

Plans for pupils to apply to university once they have received their A-level results rather than with their predicted grades have been scrapped.

UCAS, the organisation that co-ordinates degree applications,warned in October that the current system –whereby universities offer students provisional places based on their expected grades – gives an unfair advantage to pupils at private schools. Some of these pupils are encouraged to apply well before the official deadline and, for some courses, this gives them a greater chance of a conditional place.

Ucas’s chief executive, Mary Curnock Cook, argued that teenagers should submit applications for degree courses only once they have their final grades. This would have led to the most radical changes to university admissions for 50 years.

But a UCAS review into the proposed changes, published following a consultation with schools, colleges and universities, concludes that the difficulties posed are insurmountable. It would mean bringing forward A-levels and equivalent exams so that students apply to university in July, which would lead to less teaching time in schools and colleges.

The review states that the changes are also impractical because students from the four countries of the UK sit their exams at different times of the year.

Students might research their university options less thoroughly under a system in which they apply for degree courses after their exam results, Curnock Cook said.

However, UCAS admits that it “remains a problem” that many students’ predicted grades turn out to be inaccurate, affecting their chances of a place. UCAS research shows that just 10%, on average, of predictions for all three of a student’s A-level grades are accurate.

Sir Peter Lampl, chairman of the Sutton Trust education charity, warned that Ucas’s climbdown would hamper social mobility. Teenagers from low-income homes often do not believe they will get into the top universities, so do not apply. When they get their grades, they realise they could have aimed higher.

“Moving to a system where pupils apply to university with their actual grades is essential for improving social mobility,” Lampl said. “It would empower students to make realistic university choices and enable admissions tutors to select students on their actual grades, not, as is the case now, on grades predicted by their teachers, which are wrong most of the time.”

However, the Russell Group, which represents some of the most academically competitive universities, said a move to a system in which students applied with their final results would have left little time for admissions tutors to analyse each applicant’s background.

Dr Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group, said Ucas’s previous proposal would have reduced the time for universities to conduct “fair, thorough and holistic assessments of candidates”. “The main losers would be prospective students and, in particular, those from disadvantaged backgrounds, who benefit from special access schemes, summer schools and other outreach activity,” she said.

UCAS plans instead to reform the clearing system, an annual process that matches students without places to courses with vacancies.

In future, there will be a set application route for students who would have gone through clearing. All applicants will have equal access to vacancies, rather than having to browse university websites themselves. Universities will be able to see all students eligible for clearing, instead of waiting for those who are interested in their courses to contact them.

Labour sought for years, without success, to introduce changes that would have resulted in students applying to university only once they had received their grades. In 2004, an inquiry led by Professor Steven Schwartz into university admissions concluded that such a system would be “fairer and more transparent”. However, Labour shelved the move in 2006, after teaching unions and others rebelled.

Third Of Academies Want To Change School Year, Survey Finds

Third Of Academies Want To Change School Year, Survey Finds

The Guardian World News |by Jeevan Vasagar

School's out

School’s out: some academies are considering scrapping the August break. Photograph: Apex

A third of academy schools want to change the school year and about one in five are keen to extend the length of their day, according to a survey.

Many academies are making minor changes to the school year including shortening the summer holiday, and a small number are considering radical changes such as a five-term year or even scrapping the August break altogether to open all year round.

The survey of nearly 500 academies found that the overwhelmingly majority said they had improved or maintained their relationships with neighbouring schools, and more than half rated their relationship with the local authority as “good or very good”.

Academies, which were introduced under the last government, are state schools with greater freedom in areas such as the curriculum and teachers’ pay and conditions. More than half of secondary schools are expected to become academies by this summer.

Sue Williamson, chief executive of the Schools Network, which represents 965 academies and conducted the survey jointly with the think-tank Reform, said: “Critics of academy status declared that this movement would be the end of co-operative state education in this country. This survey shows that this is not the case. Schools are co-operating and working with local authorities more than ever before.”

The survey found that nearly 40% of schools that converted to academy status did so primarily for financial reasons. Finance was the most commonly cited reason, with nearly 78% of those that became academies giving it as one factor in the decision.

A majority of academies had not altered teachers’ terms and conditions and said they had no plans to do so. The survey found that 12% had made changes and an additional 13% planned to do so in future.

Many schools had either agreed with staff that they would not make changes or were “concerned at the prospect of union hostility,” according to the survey. Some of the more radical changes included introducing performance-related pay and creating new senior posts such as “academy lead teacher”.

Nearly two-thirds of academies (62%) had changed their curriculum or planned to do so. The most common changes were the introduction of new subjects, particularly languages and computing at the expense of DT and ICT.

Dale Bassett, research director at Reform, said: “These results explode the myth of anti-academy campaigners that academies would lead to the disintegration of the state education system. But they also highlight the importance of autonomy in driving school innovation and improvement, and should encourage ministers to strengthen the freedoms provided to academies and other schools.”

The Department for Education said: “In a short space of time, hundreds of academies have adapted their curriculum; a third are changing – or are considering changing – term times to suit pupils and parents; and they are rightly enjoying more control over their finances.

“The survey also shows that many of the scare stories about academies simply are not true. They are working well with other local schools and many have even improved their links with local authorities.”

Stephen Twigg, the shadow education secretary, said: “Twelve years after Labour launched the academies programme, they continue to raise standards – with improvements at twice the rate of other schools. Academies set up under Labour were in some of the toughest neighbourhoods in England.”

Martin Johnson, deputy general secretary of the Association of Teachers & Lecturers, said: “This report confirms that few academy heads have really been driven by some grand idea of the virtues of greater independence. They’ve done it for the money.”

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