Minister uses new powers to harmonise school term dates in 2016/17

9 September 2015

Article by Michael Dauncey, National Assembly for Wales Research Service

This is a picture of empty school playing fields

Image from Google Images. Licensed under the Creative Commons.

As the new school year begins, many parents and school staff may welcome the fact that this will be the last year when school terms (and therefore school holidays) differ between local authorities or even between schools within the same area, at least other than on occasional exceptions.

The Minister for Education and Skills, Huw Lewis, announced earlier this summer that he was using new powers given to him by recent Assembly legislation to direct local authorities and schools to set specified term dates for 2016. This was because local authorities failed to agree common dates among themselves. This in itself showed the need for the Minister to be given such powers in order for the Welsh Government to achieve its goal of harmonising school term dates across Wales.

This power of direction for the Minister was only introduced recently by the Education (Wales) Act 2014 (section 42) and the first school year this applies to is 2016/17. The Welsh Government argued that variations in term dates cause inconvenience and additional childcare costs to families where siblings attend different schools which may not have the same term dates or where parents work in a school with different term dates to that of their children. The Welsh Government undertook a consultation in 2012 before bringing forward the legislation.

A different approach is being taken in England with the Deregulation Act 2015 transferring decisions over school term dates from local authorities to individual schools themselves, resulting in more variation rather than less which will be the case here. A recent House of Commons Library briefing paper explains the position in England further. Academies and free schools already make decisions themselves about school terms.

Reaction during legislative scrutiny

When the Children, Young People and Education Committee scrutinised the Education (Wales) Bill, it found that the proposal to harmonise school term dates was generally welcomed. The Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA) said (pdf 722KB) many attempts had been made to encourage local authorities to set standard dates but these had failed. The WLGA therefore welcomed the provision for Ministerial intervention where necessary.

There was also a clear indication of support for harmonised term dates from the online survey carried out by the Assembly‘s Outreach team (pdf 656KB). Of 428 people who answered the question, 61 per cent would prefer dates to be the same across Wales with 17 per cent disagreeing and 22 per cent being unsure.

An exception was the concern expressed by some representatives of faith education. The Catholic Education Service (pdf 549KB) said it was imperative that Catholic schools are able to set holidays so that they can ensure observance with Church teachings, particularly at Easter. As it happens, the dates set by the Minister for 2016/17 see schools breaking up for Easter before the start of Holy Week rather than on Maundy Thursday, which is often Catholic schools’ preference. Further information on this issue is provided later in this article.

New legal position

If a school is a foundation or voluntary aided school, the governing body sets school term dates. For all other maintained schools, they are set by the local authority. 

However, as of academic year 2016/17, where they cannot agree on common or ‘harmonised’ dates, the Welsh Ministers (in this case, the Minister for Education and Skills) can direct those local authorities and governing bodies to set term dates that the Minister considers appropriate.

The Education (Wales) Act 2014 added new subsections into the Education Act 2002 which:

  • Firstly, require local authorities and governing bodies (where they are responsible) to co-operate and co-ordinate with each other to ensure that term dates for maintained schools in Wales are the same or as similar as possible.
  • Secondly, provide the Minister with a power to direct local authorities and governing bodies to set specified term dates, where they have failed to harmonise term dates through their own efforts.

If, after considering the term dates which local authorities and governing bodies have notified the Welsh Government they intend setting, the Minister wishes to use his power to direct the determination of school term dates, he has to undertake consultation on his proposed dates. After that, the Minister may direct what school term dates are to be set for maintained schools in Wales, thereby ensuring they are harmonised.

Where the Minister intervenes, he does not have to direct that all school term dates are the same. Furthermore, even where local authorities and governing bodies have been able to agree common school term dates, the Minister may direct that alternative dates are set if he does not believe the dates agreed are appropriate.

What has happened for school term dates in 2016/17?

The school year 2016/17 is the first year which the new legislative provisions apply to.

A document entitled Ministerial decision on school term dates for 2016/17 (pdf 910KB) on the Welsh Government website explains the process the Welsh Government followed, including details of the dates which local authorities said they intended to set, the consultation the Welsh Government undertook on its proposed common dates, and the final decision and direction by the Minister.

The Welsh Government received notification from all local authorities except Carmarthenshire of the term dates they intended to set. However, whilst these could be grouped to some extent by common dates, there was still variation within North Wales, and between North and South Wales.

The Welsh Government consulted between 10 November 2014 and 2 February 2015, on proposed dates (as the Minister had decided, based on the intended dates that had been submitted, that a direction was needed). The Welsh Government published a summary of the consultation responses which reported that three quarters of Catholic schools which responded were content to align their term dates with their local authority and break up for Easter before the start of Holy Week. All Church in Wales schools which submitted notifications were content to break up before Holy Week like other schools in their area.

In his statement on 24 June 2015, the Minister for Education and Skills announced that he was using his power of direction and setting school term dates for 2016/17 himself. The school term dates themselves are included within that statement. In terms of the timing of the Easter break, the Minister said he was ‘mindful’ of concerns but that he believed the dates he had set reflected the will of the majority, including most faith schools.

Perhaps what is most striking is that the Minister has had to use his legal power of direction to ensure school term and holiday dates are harmonised, at the first time of asking.

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