We ran a poll at the outset of this week asking who had broken up for the Christmas Break already. 29% of respondents were still at school this week. Simon Mayo’s Drivetime show on Radio 2 asked a similar question on Tuesday, expecting most teacher callers to say they were finishing on Wednesday. However he soon received messages from Lancashire, Greater Manchester and Cheshire with teachers continuing until Friday 23rd December. This amounts to a term of fifteen full weeks, and an eight week run from half term, in what for primary phase teachers is often the busiest period of the year as well as one of the most sickness prone. A number of tweets have reported ‘limping over the line’ or words to similar effect.
A quick search for term dates reveals a wide disparity across the country and sometimes within the same LA. At one of our schools, we received an invitation to a rounders festival in the Summer Term. We had to decline as we had already broken up. Our would-be hosts, part of a MAT, still had a further week and a bit, taking them to the last weekend in July, the school website listing 1st August as the start of the holiday. The reason for this difference lay in the two week half term break Autumn Term and additional days at Easter. The staff still worked their 190 days but for families with children at the local secondary school there were more than two weeks where school holidays didn’t coincide, compounded by all five INSET days being taken before October in a block of three and two days bookending the half term. Interestingly whilst most of us had a seven week half term, those children had five and a half, immediately after a six week break. Given also the early Easter this year, the second half of Spring lasted just twenty four school days.
In a time where we have teachers burning out after a handful of years is it not time to consider a more radical approach to term times for the sake not only of their wellbeing, but for that of the children? Despite efforts to reduce workload, there are still tasks that need to be completed each term particularly in terms of teaching and learning, assessment, reporting and, especially in primary, in creating great displays. Last year’s Autumn term was fifteen weeks, Spring term was one day short of eleven; twenty one days less to complete just as much.
There have been suggestions for balancing out term dates which until recently had been largely dictated by the local authority, that is people not at the chalk face. Easter was always presented as a barrier, with a formula relating to the cycle of the Moon agreed in the Fourth Century deciding when Easter Sunday fell. At one of its latest possible points, we can recall a Summer half term beginning the day after May Bank Holiday and lasting only four weeks which included a training day, a polling day closure and SATS week.
There was a brief experiment with balancing the Spring and Summer Terms with a two week break for Easter, where it most commonly falls. In 2008 Easter fell two weeks before this, resulting in a long weekend and hasty rearrangements for schools which always ended this term with an Easter service.
Easter is a more important festival than Christmas for many of the Christian faith and unlike Christmas it is not as lost in the commercial and gastronomic maelstrom of the holidays. It was made no less significant in 2008 falling before the school break and that year did offer more balance for teachers in meeting deadlines.
Our suggestion for rearranging terms lies in maintaining our thirty nine working weeks but splitting this into five terms, four of eight weeks and one of seven but also in reconsidering the breaks in between. After a tough seven or eight weeks, one week break may recharge the batteries but a second week will allow for preparation and planning too. Colleagues in academies with the two weeks in October tell us they feel more refreshed and ready for the run to Christmas. How about if each break was two weeks until the Summer?
For many teachers in England, not working in August is something of a sacred cow, but whilst holidaying in Scotland we have seen children returning in the middle of that month. Colleagues in Leicestershire have historically also returned in August too. If we were to begin in August, there would be brighter evenings, more time for sporting fixtures at the outset of the year and opportunities to see those plants we started in the Summer which have often withered and died by September.
Here is a potential model to consider, dated as if in place for this academic year.
Term 1 8 weeks 22nd August-7th October (Two weeks break)
Term 2 8 weeks 24th October to 23rd December (Two weeks break)
Term 3 8 weeks 9th January to 3rd March (Two weeks break)
Term 4 8 weeks 20th March to 12th May (Two weeks break)
Term 5 8 weeks 29th May to 21st July (Four weeks break)
Bank Holidays in August and May would need to be accounted for, as would Easter 25th/28th March. INSET days could be shared one per term rather than covered en bloc.
Four weeks in the Summer might cause some stir but remember this is about balance, wellbeing and keeping teachers in the profession as well as maximising the learning opportunities for our young people too without burning them out either. Eight weeks is a long haul but the prospect of two weeks recovery may sell this as an option. Remember also that people in other jobs with only four to five weeks holiday entitlement do resent what we have and aren’t always appreciative of the pressures teachers face.
Realistically this is unlikely to happen in the near future but we would welcome thoughts on this suggestion.