HL Deb 25 January 1990 vol 514 cc1159-61

Lord Orr-Ewing asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will reconsider the timing of the school terms and school examinations so that the summer term is restored to 12 weeks and the winter term is reduced from the current 14 or 15 weeks.

Viscount Davidson

No, my Lords, legal powers to determine the dates of school terms lie with local education authorities or school governors. Responsibility for the timing of school examinations rests with the GCSE examining groups and the GCE examining boards.

Lord Orr-Ewing

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that rather negative reply, but the present system is certainly very higgledy-piggledy. Exams will start in mid-May; the whole of the summer term, from both an academic and a sporting aspect, will be increasingly disrupted. The September term of 15 weeks is very long for schoolmasters and pupils who become over-tired. There is much interest in this point from examinees, examiners, parents and the moderators, who are all affected. In other countries they handle these matters rather better. Could not the Government take a little initiative and collect these groups together to see whether there is a more orderly and systematic arrangement?

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, the Government appreciate the need for coherence in the pattern of school terms and holidays, but see no advantage in imposing dates nationally. Coherence is being achieved where it matters most, at the local level, where local education authorities have powers to determine the dates of terms and holidays for county and controlled schools, which constitute about 80 per cent. of all maintained schools.

Baroness Phillips

My Lords, is the Minister aware that a few years ago research was carried out on the possibility of a four-term year? Not only did the universities, teachers and parents agree, but at that time even the Government agreed. Why has it never been revised? Perhaps this is the moment to change, now that the noble Lord has raised the matter.

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, that would be a major change with implications for society generally. We do not think now is the right time to contemplate its introduction. However, I can tell the noble Baroness that there is an initiative on the part of certain LEAs in the Midlands to have a test with a four-term year. Our own view is that a piecemeal introduction of this change is likely to give rise to tensions and discontinuities both within and between areas; but we shall follow that trial with interest.

Lord Peston

My Lords, I hate to say anything in support of the Government; but I understand that the Government have been consulting on these matters and, having issued a draft circular, intend issuing a final circular on the relevant considerations of the sort that the noble Lord raised. Can the Minister tell the House whether the final version of the circular outlining the measures that local authorities should be taking into account will be issued in the near future, or is the pressure of work in the DES on other nonsensical matters preventing movement on this very important aspect?

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, I can tell the noble Lord that this circular, which has not yet been issued in its final form, will contain no new guidance on the length or arrangement of the school year.

Lord Airedale

My Lords, perhaps the Minister will turn his attention to the spring term. With the tendency of school holidays to wrap themselves around Easter, and with Easter leaping about the calendar like a gazelle, does this not play havoc with the arrangements for the spring term?

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, I am aware of the noble Lord's views about Easter and its continuous movement. However, I have to say that that will still be a matter for the local education authorities.

Lord Beloff

My Lords, does my noble friend the Minister agree that the effect the summer term has of lowering the status of cricket as our national game is due almost entirely to the convenience of the examiners, and the examining boards being given preference over the convenience of pupils and parents? Should not some balance be introduced into the equation?

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, the Government are very much aware of the concern expressed on that particular matter. Although it is too late to change the timetable for 1990, I understand that GCSE examining groups are looking very carefully at the position for 1991 and beyond. Perhaps I may say that with the exams starting so early and having disposed of those, many pupils would stay on to play more cricket than they have before.

Lord Ritchie of Dundee

My Lords, is it not to the point that the early beginning of exams in May started with the CSE, and with the CSE and the GCE now merged into the GCSE, instead of having two separate exams, we have only one? Therefore —in theory at any rate —it should not take so long to mark, correct and produce the results. Is this not to the point, and might it not make the examination correcting period shorter?

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, the noble Lord is quite right, but that is a matter for the GCSE examining groups, and I am sure that they are looking into it at the moment.

Lord Annan

My Lords, will the noble Viscount draw the attention of the Secretary of State to the very reasonable and important Question put by the noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing? I am sorry that the Government, having rightly intervened to impose a national curriculum upon schools, are now so chary of also intervening on this matter. Will he bear in mind that this matter, after 1992, is quite likely to be raised on a European level?

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, I shall certainly draw the attention of my right honourable friend to what has been said in this House this afternoon. I shall certainly not be chary about doing that.

Lord Glenamara

My Lords, whatever the Government do, I hope they will do nothing to shorten the winter term or to break it up. As anybody who has taught in a school will confirm, that is the term in which the solid hard work is done.

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, again, I shall draw that to the attention of my right honourable friend.

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