The legal powers and precedent make shorter summer holidays a possibility. The question for ministers and schools alike is whether they can sell the idea, writes Esther Maxwell

As the UK’s schools welcome pupils back through their doors after a sustained period of remote learning, the education sector is rife with questions around whether going back was the right approach and whether more is needed to help pupils catch up on almost 12 months of disruption.

As a potential solution, education secretary, Gavin Williamson recently outlined proposals being considered by government to help pupils catch up on lost learning. At the heart of these were drastic changes to how the school year runs, including the introduction of a five-term year, and shortened summer holidays. The response, so far, has been mixed, with many parties balancing the need to get curriculum back on track with more practical elements of the proposals, including how to effectively roll out and sustain mass testing programmes.

Unilaterally changing the structure of the academic year for all schools would be a bold move and would alter term timeframes that have been in place for many years. Under normal circumstances, the idea of introducing new legislation in a matter of months would seem extremely ambitious. However, during the course of the pandemic, the expedited introduction of the emergency Coronavirus legislation in a matter of weeks has shown that policymakers are able to move quickly, if the need is great enough.

A shortened summer break is likely to have its fans and its detractors

Academies, independent and maintained schools already have the freedom to set their own school term dates. However, the Coronavirus Act 2020 does make provision for the education secretary to unilaterally require schools to change their term dates through a temporary continuity direction under Schedule 17 of the Act.

A shortened summer break in the name of boosting learning for schoolchildren is likely to have both its fans and its detractors. Parents may, on the one hand, be glad of some extra time to focus on their own work after months of home schooling. But if pupils are called back into school as the summer holiday season gets into full swing, there may be pushback from some families aggrieved at having to curtail long-awaited holiday plans.

Teachers, on the other hand, despite having faced an incredibly tricky task during the pandemic, may take a more objective view. After all, for many, students’ learning is a central motivation. There will of course be strong opinions from the teaching unions around shortened holidays, but until government plans are better fleshed out, what that reaction is remains to be seen.

In the event that the school holidays are shortened, there will be administrative work for institutions to do between then and now. Even though there is a power in the Coronavirus Act 2020 to require schools to adopt certain school term dates, institutions will also need to consider the employment law implications before implementing those changes. Accordingly, any school which needs staff to alter their working hours should undergo a review of terms and conditions of employment.

Even though many teachers have a degree of flexibility built into their contracts, this may not be substantial enough if they are required to come to work weeks earlier or later than normal. In this case, employers would ideally need to get agreement from staff to changes to their terms and conditions of employment. They should begin a consultation with staff as early as possible, telling them what the proposals are, why they are being introduced and how they will affect them.

If agreement cannot be reached, there is always the option of terminating contracts and issuing new ones for individuals to sign. However, this carries significant legal risks. Depending on the numbers of staff involved, this could also trigger the need to undergo a formal collective consultation process, which involves significant time and effort.

If shorter summer holidays are announced and there is a need for extra staffing support, the best course of action for schools would be to sell the idea. It’s in students’ best interests, it would only be for a relatively short amount of time and – hopefully – it would only be for this year.

Time will tell what government decides, but one thing is for certain: school pupils have undergone a damaging 12 months and everything possible should be done to get their education back on track.