Is our three-term system appropriate for the modern family? banner


Is our three-term system appropriate for the modern family?

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Over my career I have only once been involved in a discussion which had the potential to fundamentally change the structure of term times within the education sector. The premise of this discussion was to try to even out the number of weeks in each half term, spread holiday periods and ensure that Faith Schools had the opportunity to celebrate Easter appropriately.

The entire conversation lasted about eight minutes and, at the time, (about 17 years ago - give or take) demonstrated that there was no appetite for change. However, time and time again I keep coming back to this debate and question whether the current structure, especially the six-week summer holiday, continues to be fit for purpose.

As the Easter break has started for many schools (or is about to start in some regions), I have found myself pondering this once again – so here are my ramblings, for anyone that’s interested.

As a school leader, I never questioned the widely held view that the school calendar is based on farming cycles so that children could be involved as much needed support for a busy harvest period. I have even perpetuated this belief. However, this cannot be the case for several reasons.

Firstly, a holiday that ends in early September cannot possibly be helpful for an early Autumn harvest. Secondly, with the industrial revolution of the 19th Century, farming was becoming increasingly mechanised.  So, where does our six week and therefore imbalance within term times originate, to be honest it’s not that clear!

In the 1840’s and an American, Horrace Mann, suggested that as a ‘respite for teachers and children’ and as the ‘stifling heat’ was not conducive to learning, an extended break across July and August would be appropriate.  As this was 180 years ago, I do wonder if this existing structure make sense for a modern family, teachers and other school-based staff!

In 1938 the legislation on Holidays with Pay was released and this supported lower income families to engage with summer holidays, as we know them now.

With that whistle stop tour of the history of our current structure in schools, what does this mean for the ongoing debate? It’s not only about cheaper foreign or staycation breaks as holiday industries and education are intrinsically linked through history and will continue to be so, but learning and family life has changed dramatically over the last century.

From personal experience, the curve of learning and also the process of engaging with learning can be swiftly forgotten, especially for our youngest children in school. In addition, an eight week half term shows in a Reception class when you are stepping over children who are falling asleep because they are tired …  learning takes a lot of energy!

Anecdotally, behaviour and attendance data would suggest that the final week of a long half term, is not conducive to effective learning as staff and children are increasingly lacking in energy (and patience!).  So, this could be the very start of a discussion for change and I would be keen to see what analysis has been done on the impact of changes that have already been made by brave leaders within some Multi-Academy Trusts to change the ‘traditional’ structure of term time and holidays.

However, in Italy and Spain children and young people continue to have 12-13 weeks for their summer break. With recent changes to our climate in the UK and temperatures sometimes reaching 40 degrees in June, perhaps Mann was right and the current status quo is future proofing us for climate change.

None of this has focussed on the modern family, with working parents and the current financial position of many exemplified by a six-week holiday. My suggestion is merely that this complex issue should be the focus of a proper debate (again) backed by all stakeholder engagement and an evidenced based research approach, rather than continuing with the habit!

I wish you all a restful and energising Easter break.


Sarah Young, Young +

This article is for general guidance only. It provides useful information in a concise form. Action should not be taken without obtaining specific legal advice.
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