Why a five-term year works so well (as long as we all do it)

12 Mar 2021, 5:00

There are many reasons to support reform of the school calendar year. But there’s one important caveat, writes Sir David Carter

In 2004, I was appointed principal of John Cabot City Technology College (CTC) in Bristol, my second headship. One of the most curious aspects of the college I was about to lead was the structure of its academic year, which was completely different to any I had seen before.

As I grew to understand it and started to relate the structure to my vision for the school, it became a model that is still in my view the best at linking the academic calendar to the learning of children. So I welcome the fact that ministers and department officials are talking about this model. With a caveat.

What made the five-term year at John Cabot such a good model was, first and foremost, that a term was nearly always eight weeks long. This gave a consistent structure to the modular curriculum delivery that I believed was so important. Each term had the same sequence:

  • Weeks 1 to 4 were teacher delivery weeks, teaching the knowledge and content for each specific module on the curriculum;
  • Week 5 was revision and retrieval week;
  • Week 6 was assessment week, with the precise nature of the assessment determined by each subject;
  • Week 7 was a week of teaching that deliberately focused on making the connections between the last module and the next. It was also a week for teachers to complete their assessments;
  • Week 8 saw teachers feedback to children assessment outcomes and distribute termly written report to parents.

If that structure was beneficial to teaching and learning, a two-week holiday after each eight-week term was equally good for workload and wellbeing. It gave teachers the chance to catch up on the work that they would normally do in a half-term break but also take some down-time.

It certainly created a different rhythm to the academic year

While it would be too simple to state that the five-term year alone made for a better work-life balance, it certainly created a different rhythm to the academic year. When the Easter weekend fell in term time, a long weekend was included in the term structure to ensure that there was ample time to celebrate. When the exam season started in the mid-May holiday, staff were invited to become invigilators and receive additional payment for doing so. It was so much easier to manage 300 children sitting exams in a building that was otherwise empty.

The shorter four-week summer holiday was the payback for having four two-week breaks at other points in the year. The benefit to children (and that is what this is about) was a better balance between a needed break with families, carers and friends and reducing summer learning loss.

There were additional benefits too. The new academic year started between the publication of A-level and GCSE results, which meant staff were back working when children most needed support in preparing for life in or after sixth-form. I also enjoyed seeing the faces of year 9 and 10 children as they watched the full range of emotions from year 11 students opening their envelopes.

In spite of these many advantages, though, there was one logistical challenge I could not overcome on my own. Being the only secondary school in Bristol working a five-term year created challenges for families who had to manage siblings on a different academic year cycle. It was all the harder for parents working in schools, who had different holidays to their children.

So the only way I can see this working in 2021 is if the model is adopted across the system or at least in geographical locations where a majority of families will experience the same structure. I can’t see that it would work if it just became an option for some schools to adopt and others to reject.

As the five-term year enters the education conversation once again, it’s clear to me it has a transformative potential. If we all pull together in the same direction, the gains could be substantial.

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