Friday, July 26, 2013

School's out! - Or has it been for some time?

It's the last day of the school summer term.

Well that's true for state schools here. A quick google for the term dates of various independent schools in the area reveals... that many need to seriously improve their websites and search engine optimisation. I'm not stopping to dig through every single site that can't easily display links to such basic information but three I could find finished the term on the 19th, the 17th or even the 12th. And if that seems bad, one school from my parents' town has already been on holiday for nearly a month. That's a sign of the problems in this area, though in general from my brief searches it seems to be the end of the summer term where the independents most deviate from the state schools.

The modern arrangements seem to be a vast improvement from when I was a school pupil. Then there was much greater variance in the term dates and half-term in particular could change from school to school. Often I would find my half-term was different from my sister's, and/or a friend next door and/or the schools attended by a majority of the boys in Cubs and Scouts. This created some problems, and caused more in households where the adults were all working, but requests to the schools to standardise term dates generally fell on deaf ears or protests about it being too difficult. The fact that other schools did not seem to find it a problem (my sister seemed to always have the same half-term as most of the Cubs and Scouts and for that matter CBBC and CITV) never seemed to cross their minds.

(From memory I don't think this problem was exclusive to the independent sector. I can recall one Scout camp held in a half-term which was only attended by boys from one the main two primary & secondary combinations attended by the troop plus myself. I don't know if the boys at the other - from memory it was a pair of sister schools - were all having regular classes or the multiple years all had school trips or something else.)

The effects of this could be quite varied. Parents with children who have different term dates may have to take extra weeks off. Some won't be able to at all (I can't see a school allowing a teacher a different week off) and so they have to pay more for child care - and if there aren't many other schools off at that time then the pool of potential babysitters is limited. A workplace may be able to structure its programme to allow one chunk of parents to be off at the same time but having them coming and going in different weeks is going to be far more disruptive and inefficient. The available time for a family to go away is also restricted, especially if further days of leave have had to be used up needlessly on uneven holidays.

Costs can also be increased by various activities. Parents have to pay for themselves more than once to take all the children to various activities in different weeks. Being spread out they also may not qualify for the group discounts. And some activities are only available in particular weeks - this can be anything from a special day at a museum to extra children's sessions at a swimming pool to the half-term schedule of children's television (although the digital age seems to have made the broadcasters more flexible on that one). The advertising sometimes sells things as special "treats" and this can be unintentionally hurtful to other children who don't get the "treat" because it's unavailable to them. If one child gets a treat and another doesn't it's because either the first has done something especially good or the second has been bad. Nobody is setting out to "reward" and/or "punish" children for the decisions of their school, but to the child that's what it can feel like.

Weekly after-school activities sometimes break for "half-term" and don't run during the "holidays" - if the child in question has a significantly different set of term dates then they may be away during the activity's "term time" with the potential for disruption to the schedule or else they may feel tied down by it. Parents can feel resentful of being asked to pay for weeks their child isn't there and not getting the activity in other weeks, especially if other parents are not inconvenienced for the same reason (for them). Alternatively they could take the easiest solution and not have their child take part in that activity.

But if children are to mix with a broader spectrum than just their school contemporaries, it's useful for them to be able to mix at the same time. If the calendars are all over the place then that becomes hard to do that and instead increases the isolation and resentment - even if the children are taking part in such groups, the fact they're getting holidays when others aren't will spark resentment (and it's not going to be solved by claims about longer school hours).

I recently looked through the term dates of various schools attended by myself, my sister and the two boys next door, plus the local state school dates for the next year (it was the only one that all websites listed). I was amazed to see a much greater level of conformity between the six set of dates in the area (ignoring minor details about whether a half-term begins on a Friday, Saturday or Monday though this distinction generally only comes into play with homework) with two exceptions - the end of the summer term is quite varied across four weeks, and all the independent schools in the area now give their pupils a two week half-term in the autumn. I don't know if that's because of newer thinking about holiday lengths, or an attempt to ensure pupils have at least one week of half-term shared with siblings and other schools (and a massive case of all copying each other), but they do at least succeed in the latter case. I'm also not sure how much of the conformity at the start of the summer term is forced by a late Easter (April 20th) but the other signs are encouraging.

Some of the sillier divergences have been swept aside - one school in Epsom made a habit of setting the summer half-term as Derby Week (first Wednesday in June) instead of the late spring Bank Holiday (and in my time there the two were always different weeks), making silly claims that it would difficult to park around the school in that week despite one look at the walk to the race course showing how silly it is to park there for the races. Having the standard half-term (and thanks to the bank holiday that one has had standardisation longer than any other) should and now does take priority over such trivial details.

However one school I attended elsewhere in London hasn't yet caught up with what are a fairly standard set of term dates now (Newham's state schools will also be following them) - it has a single week in the autumn which may be a better arrangement but both that and the spring half-terms are in different weeks from the standard. So the problems are still there and presumably the ostrich approach of pretending conforming is too difficult still reigns. This is despite many local authorities now co-ordinating their term dates to ensure they are the same, and many independent schools signing onto at least the core of that calendar.

There have been proposals floating about to give state schools more "flexibility" and "independence" in this area and let them set their own term dates. Having experienced the mess this can create I think it's a bad idea. This is an area where the independent schools are seeking less independence, and the state sector would be better off with increased use of the current agreed system or even nationally set dates, thus helping parents and children more. That is more important than the dogma of "freeing schools".


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