Post Covid, plans for pupils to catch up on lost learning regularly included proposals for a five term school year. The government saw it as a simple but effective way to give pupils more time back in the classroom and parents more time back at work without the stress of navigating erractically spaced breaks and long summer school holidays. The idea had important long and short term economic goals and gained real traction among politicians. It also gained the support of educators and social equality researchers who know that the long summer holiday can hit children hard in terms of learning loss, especially among disadvantaged pupils.
The school year would have two terms before Christmas and three terms after. Each term would be eight weeks long and there would be a two week holiday between each term and a shorter four week summer holiday. Easter would be taken as a bank holiday whenever it fell. The overall amount of holiday would be the same, but it would be spread out differently.
Term 1 (Aug - October) - 8 weeks
2 week break
Term 2 (October - December) - 8 weeks
2 week break
Term 3 (January - March) - 8 weeks
2 week break
Term 4 (March - May) - 8 weeks
2 week break
Term 5 (May - July) - 8 weeks
4 week break
• It would help to address the loss of learning that happens over the summer holidays. Studies have shown that up to a month’s learning can be lost over the summer break and that this has a particular impact on children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. Experts such as Lee Elliot Major, professor of social mobility at The University of Exeter, have backed the five term year as a way of tackling inequality. According to Julie McCulloch of the Association of School and College Leaders: “There is substantial evidence to suggest that some children, particularly those from more disadvantaged backgrounds, may benefit more from holidays being spread more evenly across the school year.”
• Spreading holidays more evenly throughout the year would give teachers and students more regular breaks and encourage more effective learning.
• The current one week half term breaks aren’t really long enough for teachers to get a proper break and prepare for the next half term. They can also break up the rhythm of children’s learning. Fewer two week breaks would be more effective. A two week break would be particularly helpful in the winter.
• Terms would all be a set and equal length, which would allow for easier structuring of lessons and more effective learning. Term dates would be able to remain similar from year to year, whereas under the current structure the changing date of Easter causes planning problems and uneven term lengths each year.
• The current school year structure had been in place since Victorian times. Sir David Carter, a National Schools Commissioner and head of a college which implemented the five term year said: “If you were designing an education system from scratch, absolutely the five term year is where I would design it from.”
• It might allow for summer exams to be brought forward from the current May/June timetable to April/May. This could mean earlier results days and more time to sort out university applications. It might allow for students to apply for university with known 'A' Levels. This is something that Universities and campaigners for social equality have long argued for.
• As well as addressing learning loss, reducing the long summer holiday from six weeks to four might make it easier for parents who struggle with childcare over the holidays. Chris Price, who led an inquiry into switching to a five term year in 2000, described the long summer holidays as “the bane of many parents’ lives.”
• An extra term might allow the school year to be structured to give children a broader education. Supporters of the idea have suggested that the final term could be given over to a more creative curriculum. In some Scandinavian schools there is a space in the school year called ‘sloydd’ which is free from structured academic work when children are allowed to choose activities themselves.
• Any change to the school year would be very disruptive and involve a lot of extra planning and organisation for teachers and parents. The recent disruption over the last few years has increased the reluctance to make more changes. When the issue was last raised The National Association of Head Teachers felt that teachers and parents didn’t need the distraction of further changes.
• Many teachers and teaching unions are reluctant to accept the reduction in the summer holidays. The unions argue that the long summer holidays are one of the attractions of the profession and removing them would make it even harder to recruit teachers.
• If the change is only made by some schools it becomes very difficult for parents to manage if they have children in schools with different holidays. Teachers with children in other schools would have similar issues. This is the key disadvantage that seems to have led to schools who trialled the five term year to abandon it.
• It is not clear how much parental support there is for the change. East Sussex Education were keen to adopt the structure but a consultation found that 73% of parents were against it.
• A reduction in the length of the summer holidays would increase the pressure on summer holiday bookings even more and possibly lead to even higher prices. However, supporters have argued that it would allow families to take holidays at other times of the year more easily.
The five term year was taken on by several city technology colleges including the John Cabot Technology College in Bristol. The head at the time, Sir David Carter, was an enthusiastic supporter of the five term year. He felt that it reduced summer learning loss, increased teacher wellbeing and had "a transformative potential.” However, he pointed out that for the change to be effective, every school had to adopt it. Otherwise the complications for parents with children in schools with different term dates would be too great. This proved to be the case and the college was forced to abandon the five term year.
The only way I can see this working 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. But if we all pull together in the same direction, the gains could be substantial.
Sir David Carter, Executive Director, Ambition Institute on the five term school year
The five term year was also adopted and then abandoned for similar reasons by a new primary school, Woodlands School in Grimsby, Lincolnshire. The head at the time, Robert Beel, said: "The five term year is not perfect but it has been a major contriuting factor to our school's success." He felt that the decision to move back to the traditional structure was only due to the practicalities of being out of step with other schools in the area and viewed it as "a major step backwards."
In 2021 Gavin Williamson asked the Education Recovery Commissioner, Sir Kevin Collins, to look into a five term year as part of a wider plan to help children catch up on lost learning during Covid. At the time the idea had a lot of support. However, Sir Kevin Collins resigned from the post in protest at what he believed was hugely inadequate funding for the recovery project.
Since then there doesn’t seem to have been much discussion of the idea. Some schools are now moving to treating each half term as a mini term, planning around a 6 term year and accepting uneven term lengths.
Despite lots of potential advantages and some successful trials, it seems that the five term year is an idea whose time hasn’t yet come.