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'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. 

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.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Jeremy Corbyn's Virgin video is a Jennifer's Ear for modern times

Just as with the Virgin video, the fundamental underpinnings of the Jennifer’s Ear broadcast were true, regardless of the creative shortcuts.

Memory is a funny thing, in politics as in life. Gordon Brown was the co-architect of New Labour, the longest-serving Chancellor of the Exchequer since 1823 and very probably helped avert the end of money during the financial crisis.

But when James Morris, Ed Miliband’s pollster, ran focus groups in Nuneaton earlier this year, they  found that the incident that most people associated with Brown was of him punching a protestor during the 2001 general election. Except, here’s the thing: Brown never threw the punch at all. It was John Prescott, the then-deputy Prime Minister, who landed the blow.

And although Piggate was the funniest furore that David Cameron (remember: he was accused of having put his penis in a dead pig’s mouth at university) was involved in, it wasn’t the dead pig that focus groups remembered when they were asked about Cameron – right throughout his premiership, it was photos of Cameron cycling to work with a car carrying his papers following on behind that stuck in people’s minds.

The appeal of the latter row, and with the spat between Virgin Trains and Jeremy Corbyn, is that it feeds into an idea that is commonly believed by most people: that politicians are hypocrites. Our brains reward us with feelgood sensations for confirming our beliefs and with negative ones with findings that run contrary to them.

In case you haven’t followed: in the beginning, a viral video of Jeremy Corbyn depicted the Labour leader eschewing a first class upgrade to work in the aisle of a crowded Virgin train. Today, Virgin Trains hit back, revealing CCTV footage showing that there were, in fact, spare seats available from the start of the journey.

Of course, it is in Virgin’s interests to push back against a high-profile criticism of its services (not so much to avoid renationalisation but also the loss of the contract to another company) just as it is in Corbyn’s to have a sharper, video-friendly version of the – 100 per cent authentic – images of him on a bus home that frequently exploded on Twitter and Facebook during last summer’s Labour leadership election.

It feels very close to the so-called “War of Jennifer’s Ear”, the row that erupted over a Labour party political broadcast about the effects of 13 years of Conservative rule on the NHS in 1992. The  advert was based loosely on the operation of a girl whose father, John Bennett, had written to Robin Cook, then Labour’s shadow health secretary.

But the consultant in charge of the operation, who had blamed under-funding in a letter to the Bennett family before the advert came out, U-Turned once the broadcast had aired. (To make matters worse, Jennifer’s mother and grandmother, both Conservatives, also denounced the broadcast.)

Labour was plunged into controversy. The rights and wrongs of the row are still contentious, just as this row is likely to remain too. And it emerged very swiftly that key elements of the planning of the broadcast were shambolic – Cook’s knowledge of the ins and outs of the case were not as thorough as might have been hoped, the consultant had not been spoken to in detail, and the Toryism of Jennifer’s mother and grandmother came as a total shock. It may be that similar behind-the-scenes errors emerge about the Virgin video.

But just as with the Virgin video, the fundamental underpinnings of the Jennifer’s Ear broadcast were true – operations were cancelled and delayed due to underfunding, there are numerous trains that are overcrowded, where people have to sit in aisles, and so on.

Of course, Corbyn has a particular glass jaw over any issue that appears to be “spun” due to his “kinder politics” line. Just as Tony Blair promised to be “purer than pure”. it's a pledge that is the political equivalent of handing your opponent a stick and then politely explaining how best to hit you with it.  

Although the row over Jennifer’s Ear is now largely forgotten, it was one of the many scapegoats for Labour’s shock defeat in 1992, albeit one that every serious study into the loss concluded had nothing to do with the final result. (And it’s worth pointing out that even losing a row about the issues that your party “owns”, be it health or what to do with the railways, tends to be better for your side than talking about issues on which your party is on hostile territory)  Corbyn’s sitting arrangements, like the ear, will have a similarly limited afterlife. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.