Farewell to Summer

Proposals to allow schools to set their own term times, announced earlier this month, have provoked numerous responses both in favour and against.

There may will be sound arguments for a six-week summer holiday, just as there may be for shorter breaks, and schools which have chosen either of these ways may well feel justified in their decision, especially if they perceive positive results as a consequence.  However, the argument for or against this proposal is much more than a debate over the educational benefits of the length of time spent in school.

Here are just two of the arguments for a change, which I find specious:

Shorter holidays and more terms will help prevent the most disadvantaged pupils from falling further behind their peers.

There are a number of limitations to this argument.  Firstly, the argument recognises that socio-economic context can impact on educational opportunities.  Yet, it then minimises the impact of socio-economics with the belief that schools can compensate for society.  While there is a body of evidence which has examined the difference a school can make in terms of outcomes, it remains an ambitious claim that poverty, which may involve for example, poor quality housing and high levels of morbidity can be mitigated by school attendance and high quality teaching.

Secondly,  this argument renders socio-economic inequalities as natural and inevitable.  If, as a society we really are concerned with socio-economic inequalities we would work to produce a much fairer society all round.  Instead, we deal with the symptoms of those inequalities and naively hope this will produce that fairer society.

Yet, despite these problems, realist policy responses to gaps in educational outcomes are the only responses available in the absence of more fundamental social reform.  But, as generations of educational reform have shown, those gaps will remain.

The current system of  school terms was designed to meet the needs of an Agricultural economy

This is Gove’s claim. However, Gove emphasises a partial view of history.

The development of state schooling intensified at the end of the nineteenth century and, one explanation is that this was to meet the needs of a changing, though not solely an agricultural economy. Even in rural areas, factories and mining existed side by side an agricultural, and domestic service economy. Six weeks holidays taking up the whole of August was not universal across England.  For example, in nineteenth century Teesdale schools, attendance during August was a common practice, with the midsummer vacation running through July.

But Gove’s partial view of history skims over the power relations inherent in any economic system.  The schooling system that was developed at the end of the nineteenth century reflected power inequalities and it would be naive to suggest that contemporary educational policies and proposals for future policy do not.

Therefore, it is important to note where this proposal is coming from.  The proposed change is to be found in the Draft Deregulation Bill presented to Parliament earlier this month.  In the forward to the draft Bill, Kenneth Clarke and Oliver Letwin state:

“Publication of the draft Bill is the latest step in the Government’s ongoing drive to remove unnecessary bureaucracy that costs British businesses millions, slows down public services like schools and hospitals, and hinders millions of individuals in their daily lives.”

This makes sense if you believe that bureaucracy is unnecessary, costly, slows down services and hinders the daily lives of “millions of individuals”.  If, on the other hand you believe that so-called ‘red tape’ is a necessary albeit imperfect means of working towards fairness, public safety and accountability then this statement is highly disturbing, revealing the ideology behind the Government’s intentions.

With regards to setting of school terms, the proposals are as follows:

(1) Section 32 of the Education Act 2002 (responsibility for fixing dates of terms and holidays and times of sessions) is amended as follows.

(2) Before subsection (1) insert –

“(A1) In the case of a community, voluntary controlled or community special school in England or a maintained nursery school in England, the governing body shall determine –

  1. (a)  the dates when the school terms and holidays are to begin and end, and
  2. (b)  the times of the school sessions.”

This means Local Authorities will no longer be responsible for setting school terms  (Academies and Free Schools already have the power to set their own dates).  This deregulation, and apparent freeing from bureaucracy does not do away with the need for decisions to be made about term dates and session times. In other words, it replaces one form of bureaucracy with another.  The key difference is the transfer of responsibility from local authorities to school governing bodies.  This is the real deregulation, and it further marketises schooling. The move will not bring increased freedoms other than the illusion of parental choice in the school market place.  Local authorities, however imperfect local democracy may be, are a means by which we can exercise power and can hold our representatives accountable.  Deregulation takes this away.

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