As I near the end of my final year in senior school and prepare to enter sixth form, I have been thinking a lot about the school year and its layout. I began to research questions which I have always had but never had the chance to pursue, and this is what I found;
The school year in the United Kingdom is generally divided into three terms running from autumn to summer. For state schools, the school year consists of 195 days of which there are 190 teaching days and 5 inset (teacher training) days. For independent schools, the school year can be as short as 175 days. The structure of the school year varies between different areas of the UK and school holiday dates vary between different local education authorities.
The reason for the long summer holiday arose in the 19th century, before the mechanization of agriculture, and when most of the population were dependent on the land and lived in rural areas. Children were needed at home through the haymaking and wheat harvest season, around the start to the end of August, when every pair of hands counted. The education authorities finally gave up the losing battle to try and keep children in school during this time.
The academic year, centred around the long holiday in July and August (designed for pre-industrialised England) also has a Christmas and Easter break, for obvious religious reasons. The school year is made up of three terms which all have a half-term break in the middle of them to allow pupils and teachers a break.
The long summer holiday has often been criticised by educationalists who say that the long breaks delay academic progress. In 1999 the House of Commons Education Select Committee recommended that schools switch to a five-term academic year, abolishing the long summer holidays. Each term would be eight weeks long with a two-week break in between terms, and a minimum four-week summer holiday, with no half terms—the idea being that children can keep up momentum for eight weeks without a break. The proposals were introduced at a small number of schools nationally.
In 1999, the Local Government Association set up a commission to look at alternative proposals for a more balanced school year. In partnership with Local Authorities and teachers unions, they were unable to agree to a suitable alternative arrangement for terms, but by 2004 came to an agreement with the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers for a standardised arrangement of school terms. Since 2004, around one third of English local authorities have signed up to the proposals which see a standard academic year agreed between the authorities.