HL Deb 18 July 2001 vol 626 cc1469-72

2.50 p.m.

Lord Harrisonasked Her Majesty's Government:

What, in their assessment, are the economic, social and educational benefits of instituting a six-term school year as proposed by the English Tourism Council.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills (Baroness Ashton of Upholland)

My Lords, we have no knowledge of a proposal by the English Tourism Council for a six-term school year. The Local Government Association has consulted on proposals for a six-term year and will make final recommendations in December. We shall consider those carefully. However, at present we have no plans to change the arrangements under which decisions on the organisation of the school year are taken by local education authorities and school governing bodies.

Lord Harrison

My Lords, does my noble friend agree with the suggestion made by the English Tourism Council that a 10-day autumn break and an earlier scheduling of the long summer holiday—something which might appeal to noble Lords—that would be associated with a six-term year might be of great advantage to tourism enterprises? Will she further undertake to use her best offices to ensure that maximum co-operation is established between the worlds of education and tourism to their mutual benefit, always ensuring of course that the academic welfare of schoolchildren is paramount?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords. I believe in joined-up government and so of course I shall pass on the comments made by my noble friend to my noble friend Lady Blackstone. A few schools are considering the possibility of a five-term year, but so far there is little evidence to suggest that this is appropriate. Furthermore, as my noble friend has pointed out, from the education point of view the issue will be: how would this raise standards?

The Lord Bishop of Portsmouth

My Lords, these proposals would affect the religious festivals of Easter and Passover which are closely related. However, their religious viability does not depend on the scheduling of school holidays. Do the Government agree that the proposals would result in considerable educational impoverishment, which would extend to the needs of younger pupils settling into schools at the start of the academic year? Furthermore, do the Government agree that such proposals would result in a wider cultural impoverishment, given the continuing need for society to maintain common points of reference? I have put these questions with the active support of the Chief Rabbi.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, I understand that the question of the date for Easter has been settled since AD325, but I cannot recall the name of the council that reached the decision. I understand that the Churches and denominational schools would be concerned about the impact on Easter. It is a deeply significant time of the year. It is one of the factors that underlines our view that at present we are not seeking to change the structure of the academic year. I am sure that the views of the Churches and others will be fed into the review and of course we shall be mindful of those views when we come to consider it.

Baroness Walmsley

My Lords, does the Minister accept that a six-term year could result in earlier examinations and produce a knock-on effect through many more post-qualification applications to universities? Is the Minister aware of research that has been undertaken which demonstrates that this could be advantageous to the socially excluded groups which Her Majesty's Government have declared themselves interested in further encouraging into universities?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, it is certainly our view that issues may arise as regards applications to universities. However, again, decisions about such matters should be taken locally rather than by central government. As I have said, we have no plans to make any changes, but we shall listen to representations. Universities will have to think about whether this proposal should be considered.

Lord Naseby

My Lords, the noble Baroness mentioned that representations are to be made. Can she give the House a categorical assurance that the HMC and the GBA, namely, the independent sector, will be fully consulted before anything reaches a semi-permanent form?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, as I said in my earlier responses, we have no plans to make changes. This review is taking place with the Local Government Association. However, it would be the view of the department that it would wish to consult widely and of course the bodies mentioned by the noble Lord would be included in such consultation.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I may be mistaken, but I believe that this is the first occasion on which the noble Baroness has answered Questions. On behalf of the whole House, I should like to welcome her most warmly to the Dispatch Box.

I have never been an advocate of one-size-fits-all. Some freedom should be given to head teachers, teachers, parents and staff of schools to make arrangements, while of course protecting the position of Easter and taking into account the importance of applications to universities. Does the noble Baroness agree that as much flexibility as possible should be given to schools and that such a decision should not come as a mandate either from local government or national government?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for her comments. As I said, this is a decision to be reached locally. I can cite the example of city technology colleges, which operate a five-term year. A few other schools are beginning to examine such arrangements. We are taking note of what is happening and looking at the implications for schoolchildren; namely, whether the arrangements are of any benefit. However, I agree completely with the noble Baroness that local flexibility is an issue in this area and we are mindful of that.

Lord McNally

My Lords, is the Minister aware that a degree of flexibility as regards school holidays would be greatly welcomed by parents? At present the straitjacket of school holidays results in airlines, bus and train services, hotels and a range of other services hiking up their prices during that time, greatly to the detriment of parents. Here I should declare an interest.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, perhaps I may also declare an interest in this area. As I said earlier, it is for LEAs to reach such decisions. I believe that the noble Lord might wish to make representations to his LEA, which I believe is the same as my LEA. This is an area where joined-up government has to play its part. I am sure that my noble friend Lady Blackstone will read the noble Lord's comments with care and take the matter forward.

Baroness Howells of St Davids

My Lords, does my noble friend accept that teachers from overseas need the long summer holiday because it is the only time available to them to visit their relatives? I hope that she will bear this in mind when considering any decision to change the school year.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, noble Lords will appreciate that many factors have to be considered in this debate. My noble friend has cited an important factor because we recruit teachers from overseas. The same is true for some of our pupils from ethnic minorities. They use the long summer break to visit relatives living perhaps in India, Pakistan or Bangladesh. All those considerations reinforce the case for local flexibility and for these decisions to remain with LEAs.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford

My Lords, will the Minister give attention to the position of teachers in these considerations, in particular those teachers undertaking more advanced work in secondary education? They need time to read and to attend conferences in order to improve their performance. I believe that it would be a mistake to consider the needs of the tourist industry over the needs of schoolteachers.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, teachers are of paramount importance in our schools. The noble Lord will know that we have instituted a workload study, which will be important in this context. I take on board the point made by the noble Lord.