Growing up, I attended public schools in South Africa and blithely accepted that a school year had 4 terms. I could never imagine any other way because I had not seen any other way!
It was only when I started teaching overseas that I realised that most Northern Hemisphere schools have 3 terms, with short mid term breaks and slightly longer, end of term holidays. After teaching within this system for 2 years, and seeing the many benefits that it brings with it, I found myself at a loss as to why more South African private schools have not embraced this approach.
An Overview of the the 3 and 4 Term School Years
A 4 term system involves the school year being broken down into 4 ‘terms’ with holidays of varying lengths in between. Terms are usually about 10 weeks long but can be as short as 9 or as long as 12.
A 3 term system breaks up the year into 3, approximately 12 week long terms (The first term being longer, at 16 weeks). However, midway through the term, there is a one week break (‘Half Term’) and at the end of the term, there is a two week break. This roughly equates to 6 weeks of holiday spread throughout the year and then, of course, the ‘long holiday’ (around 1 month-6 weeks) at the end.
Pros of the 3 Term System
- Curriculum can be broken down into 6 week ‘chunks’
An 11 week term is too long to do just one unit of work so we usually pack in at least two or three. However, there is almost always a ‘muddle in the middle’ and at least one of the units doesn’t gets started or finished properly
In the 3 term system, the curriculum can easily be broken down into 6 week units that can be properly started, developed and assessed before the half term break. 6 weeks on one overarching topic follows a much more natural rhythm and, as a teacher, is so much easier to plan around. One can always see the end in sight
- The Half Term Break: Perfect for planning and getting admin up to date
In the 3 term system, the 1 week holiday is not a ‘holiday’ per se. It’s an opportunity for teachers to get admin up to date, review the unit that has just been completed and flesh out planning for the 6 weeks ahead.
As a teacher, you obviously do your yearly plans at the beginning of the year, same as in the 4 term year. However, short term planning never seems too overwhelming with the 3 term approach as one can constantly look at the progress of the children and plan meaningfully for the 6 weeks ahead.
- No ‘end of term fatigue syndrome
I recently spoke to a friend who analysed their school data and saw they had an average absenteeism rate of 27% in the final week of school. This does not surprise me at all. At the end of an 11 week term, teachers are too tired to plan anything interesting and students are too tired to show up. It just doesn’t work!
When ‘term’ is run as two 6 week units with a one week break in between, none of this exhaustion pops up. I was truly amazed to see how little last week absenteeism there was when I worked overseas. We kept working right up until the final days, which took the pressure off trying to plan fun, ‘non curriculum specific’ activities for the few kids who do show up in the last bit if term as well.
The Final Word
Holidays work out roughly the same, planning is easier, attendance goes up and teacher/student exhaustion is reduced. All this is why I strongly feel that more South African schools should embrace the 3 term system. Do you disagree? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments!