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The problem with allowing schools to set their own term dates

What about parents with children at different schools? Gove and Twigg should recognise the need for local co-ordination.

Michael Gove helps paint a picture of Canary Wharf during a visit to Old Ford Primary School on June 25, 2013 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Michael Gove's plan to give all state schools the freedom to set their own term dates has prompted a rare outbreak of peace in the political battle over education. Stephen Twigg, who argued for the measure in his speech two weeks ago, declared last night that Gove had "finally done something sensible". 

Seventy per cent of secondaries and 30 per cent of primaries already have the power to determine their own term and holiday dates (since they are academies, voluntary-aided or run by foundations) and, under the coalition's Deregulation Bill, this right will now be extended to all maintained schools from September 2015. At present, pupils get six to seven weeks off in the summer, with two weeks at each of Christmas and Easter and three week-long half-term breaks. The new plans could see the introduction of shorter holidays and longer school days. The David Young Community Academy in Leeds, for instance, has introduced a seven-term year with holidays limited to four weeks and The Boulevard Academy in Hull has reduced the summer break from six weeks to four and plans to introduce Saturday teaching. 

The current system, Gove argues, disadvantages pupils, particularly those from poorer backgrounds, who need extra tuition and support from teachers. In a speech in April, highlighting the successful education systems in east Asia, he remarked: "We've noticed in Hong Kong and Singapore and other East Asian nations that expectations of mathematical knowledge or of scientific knowledge at every stage are more demanding than in this country.

"In order to reach those levels of achievement a higher level of effort is expected on behalf of students, parents and teachers. School days are longer, school holidays are shorter. The expectation is that to succeed, hard work is at the heart of everything.

"If you look at the length of the school day in England, the length of the summer holiday … then we are fighting or actually running in this global race in a way that ensures that we start with a significant handicap."

But there is at least one significant problem that both Gove and Twigg appear to have dismissed rather too hastily: what about parents with children in different schools? Holiday plans, to take the most obvious example, could be repeatedly disrupted. As Brian Lightman, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, noted last night, "Most schools choose to follow the local authority calendar because they know that it's better for parents who have children in different schools and teachers who want their holidays to coincide with their children's. 

"The problem will come if no one is responsible for creating a co-ordinated calendar for an area and it turns into a free-for-all. Somebody needs to take the lead locally on deciding term dates and it makes sense for this to be the local authority, even if schools aren't required by law to follow it."

While there is a strong case for transferring the formal power to set term and holiday dates from local authorities to governors and teachers, who will often have a better understanding of parents and pupils' needs, some degree of local co-ordination will be required to prevent chaotic clashes. Before rejoicing too quickly over their new-found consensus, it's an issue that Gove and Twigg should address.