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New term structures prompt fears of ‘chaos’ in our schools

Report and Comment by Herald Special Correspondent, John Vaughan

 

classroom_pupils_closeup_290There are fears amongst many within the education sector that Wales could be heading into chaos with a radical potential restructuring of term times. This comes as England adopts a policy from 2015 whereby head teachers will have the power to set their own school terms, potentially scaling down the long held traditional six week summer holiday to as little as four weeks.

The plans for England were announced on Monday July 1 of this year. The Department for Education set out the policy to ensure that, in future, term times are decided upon by head teachers and not local Councils. As it stands at present, Wales is not included in these plans and, though currently there is no legal duty on councils or governing bodies in Wales to work together on holiday times, there are plans to give the Assembly Government powers to set the same holiday times for all state schools in Wales. However, this is not policy yet and there is growing concern from some people within education that Wales could well follow in the same direction as England.

The National Union of Teachers have stated it will cause problems for families in different schools. A view shared by South Pembrokeshire And Carmarthen West AM and Shadow Minister for Education, Angela Burns who said, exclusively to the Herald,

“Imagine the chaos, a child at one school, another at one with different term times. It is hard enough with the disparity that England and Wales have. Even schools in the Vale of Glamorgan have different term times to Pembrokeshire. It’s the logistics!”

The Shadow Minister went on to express her concerns over the impact that this could have for potential childcare issues and parents planning for their work schedules. She stated,

“Why not let the County Council do it as they do now? I don’t understand the point of it and what are the benefits?”

Some have cited that one of the potential benefits of such a change could be cheaper package holidays for parents; others are more sceptical of this as an argument, as Christine Blower, head of the National Union of Teachers, pointed out when suggesting that holiday companies would just expand the period over which they charge premium rates, with the result that the general public would have fewer weeks of less expensive holidays.

Mrs Burns expressed her concern at the current Welsh Government proposal that the Welsh Minister for Education could have the sole power to set school term dates which could also mean an arbitrary decision could be taken on five or even six terms in a school year. She stated that she had been challenging these proposals. Mrs Burns also cast doubt upon the idea of cheaper holidays, given any change of term structure by saying that,

“The holiday companies would soon cotton on to it and nothing would change (with regard to cheaper holidays). I don’t see how that (argument) holds water”, a sentiment echoing that of Christine Blower.

A further argument put forward for this change is that it would allow for a better means of organising the curriculum. One head teacher in England argued that the changes would allow for ‘more equalised blocks of working which would be much better for curriculum planning and would be better in terms of levels of student and staff exhaustion’. Putting this point forward to Mrs Burns she responded by saying,

“Instinctively I don’t like the idea, but there is statistical evidence that the long summer break does give children too much time to forget what they are learning. The more successful European countries have shorter terms.There might be a discussion worth having about a four term year, it might serve small children, especially during the winter term”

This raised an important issue with regards to the lack of consistency with current term times and, when this was suggested to one local teacher, who asked not to be named, said,

“I can understand the argument that some of our terms are currently very long, with the present structuring, and, certainly, the autumn term leading up to Christmas can really take it out of all involved, pupils and teachers alike, but the summer holiday is almost an institution. It is a very long year and at the end of it we are all exhausted. I would suggest the first week of that summer break be a period for recovery and rest and then the last week is mostly used by teachers to prepare for the autumn term, whereby you simply hit the ground running almost immediately. I can see an argument for a five week summer break, but I would add that extra week on to the Christmas holiday, leaving the term length as it is. I can’t imagine the kind of chaos that would ensue if different schools had different term times – it makes you glad to be teaching in Wales if this is what is about to happen to our colleagues in England”

Seeking a response from the Head of Education in Pembrokeshire, Kate Evan-Hughes stated that,

“If such a policy were to be introduced in Wales, we, as a local education authority, would work with schools to minimise the impact and disruption for parents and students”

It certainly appears that whatever is decided upon in Wales, the policy is likely to cause at least some disruption and disorientation to parents, teachers and pupils when it is introduced into English schools.

However, a local Pembrokeshire school governor, who wished to be unnamed, did stress there may be some positives,

“From speaking to teachers I know it can take months for children to be re-focused after the summer holidays. I can see a four week holiday might be of benefit to help with this problem and pupils would re-focus much more quickly. Also, schools often struggle to keep children in school, holidays are cheaper (outside of current holiday times), but of course holiday companies would cotton on, but it could well cut down on unauthorised absences which is a real problem.”

It is an emotive issue and there are opinions for and against the change in England. No matter whether Wales adopts this policy or not, it seems from speaking with the various academic parties that, in Wales, there is at least a growing movement to question as to whether there should be a change to the structure of the school year and the amount of and length of terms. However, what are the impacts likely to be and who will it benefit? As Angela Burns states,

“This is a big decision that needs to be taken with all the consultation of teachers, unions, parents, governors, support services and businesses as it is a really radical move. If only one school did this it would be highly disruptive. It is a decision that needs proper analysis, research, evidence and consultation with everyone that it will affect. It is a huge change that needs investigating properly. It could be very unsuccessful”

Perhaps we, in Wales, should wait and see how successful it is in England before deciding upon a policy for Wales. After all, where education is concerned, risks simply cannot be taken with children’s academic futures. It is far too important for that and, surely, a measured and patient approach should be taken before any change is made, where quantifiable evidence has been studied and reflected upon before any final decision?