Long and the short of it

A Leeds school has cut down the summer break to help parents. Will the idea catch on, asks Audrey Ward

22 July 2012
The Sunday Times

School’s out for most boys and girls across Britain and this weekend they will be plotting how to cram as much enjoyment into the next six weeks as possible. So spare a thought for 12-year-old Shown Biswas, one of 1,050 pupils at the David Young community academy in Leeds. Although he is going on a caving trip to Wales and planning visits to the seaside, some shopping and sessions on the trampoline in his back garden, he has just four weeks in which to do it all. By August 19, he will be laying his freshly pressed uniform on the bed and rooting his schoolbag out of the closet ready for lessons the next day.

Shown says he would grow bored if he had more than a month off in the summer, yet thinking about his 10-year-old sister’s likely antics on that particular Sunday induces a sense of gloom. “She’s in a different school to me. She jumps around the house the night before I go back shouting, ‘I’ve got two weeks more holiday than you.’ I get a bit jealous,” he admits.

However if Michael Gove, the education secretary, has his way, Shown’s sister may no longer have an incentive for that Sunday-night bounce about the house. Gove proposes that, at primary and secondary academies and free schools, the school day should be extended and the standard three-term model replaced with at least six terms. The summer break would be a month rather than six weeks. He says the changes would ease the pressure on working parents and close the educational gap between the rich and poor. If the plans go ahead, the term structure and timetable at David Young could become a blueprint for the future.

Pupils and teachers at the academy work for no more than five or six weeks at a time, compared with a conventional eight or nine-week stretch. The academic year begins in June rather than September and is divided into seven blocks, a structure that fits in with the traditional Christmas and spring breaks.

Only three weeks are different from the standard academic year. Pupils and teachers lose the October half-term break and two weeks in the summer; the shortfall is made up with week-long breaks at the end of September and in the middle of November. The final “lost” week is gained in May.

Shown’s experience bolsters the argument that shorter holidays combat a loss of learning that may occur between July and September. “When I come back after the summer, it’s easier to remember things. It’s still fresh in my mind,” he says.

Shown’s school mates, Lucy Driver, 13, and Ben Rushworth, 15, are equally enthusiastic about their holidays. Lucy feels no sense of injustice even though some of her friends will not return to their school until September. “The breaks are more spread out and you do get the time, just elsewhere in the year,” she says.

Ben, who will use the month to attend rugby and football coaching courses, highlights the financial benefits. “We wait until the end of the September term to take our family holiday. We go to Mallorca and it’s ¬£1,000 cheaper at that time of year compared with the summer.”

The academy is located in one of the most deprived areas of Leeds, and this was a factor in the decision of its principal, Ros McMullen, to reposition the term times.

“I wouldn’t necessarily follow this pattern if I was opening another school but for this community it has worked,” she says. “The big long holiday is of no benefit to the families here. It’s a complete pain in the neck to them. The children around here are not necessarily being taken to museums and art galleries; they may not be exposed to anything that is particularly educational during that period.”

McMullen also finds the longer days work well. There are only two compulsory lessons, morning and afternoon, each three hours long and including a supervised meal. The day ends at 3pm but there is a voluntary third lesson, such as Chinese or canoeing, which continues until 4.35pm.

The feedback from parents and teachers has been positive. Lisa’s mother, Sue Driver, is a teaching assistant and wishes the local primary school where she works would fall in line with David Young’s timetable. She, too, believes that children’s retention of information is helped by the shorter holidays. Although childcare issues can prove “tricky”, she is lucky to be able to rely on her mother to look after the children during the weeks she is working.

Not everyone has been won over by the idea of shorter summer holidays and a longer school day. In April the National Union of Teachers voted to back strikes and other industrial action to prevent the changes. That followed three one-day strikes in March and April by teachers angry with¬†Nottingham city council‘s plans to move 73 schools from three to five terms and cut summer holidays to four weeks from 2013.

Christine Blower, general secretary of the union, said: “Teachers and pupils in England and Wales already spend longer hours in the classroom than those in most other countries. Countries that the education secretary often holds up as examples of excellence, such as Finland, Sweden and South Korea, all have fewer classroom hours than the UK. Many countries have longer holidays than Britain.”

She recognises that the six-week summer break can be difficult for parents in terms of childcare, leading to boredom and, in some cases, antisocial behaviour but she puts this down to the lack of outof-school provision and does not believe shorter school holidays are the answer.

Shown, though, is happy with the setup. He knows that after the excitement of that first day back he’ll be the one with the bounce in his step. “I like seeing the teachers and my friends again,” he says. “It’s then that I think my sister should be jealous of me.”

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