New bank holiday may shorten school year

Secondary school students currently have one of shortest academic years in Europe

Schools say they remain “in the dark” about whether the academic year will be shortened in light of the Government’s new bank holiday.

There is to be an extra public holiday on March 18th this year, and one on the first Monday of February from 2023 onwards to mark St Brigid’s Day.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Education said it was considering the impact of the additional bank holiday on the length of the school year and will be in communication with schools “in due course”.

Many, however, have interpreted the Government announcement as unofficial confirmation that the academic year is now one day shorter.

Most schools which had previously scheduled a day off on March 18th, 2022 – when they finalised their calendars last year – have already decided to to take a further day off, typically in May this year.

Schools in Ireland are obliged to open for 183 days per year at primary level and 167 days per year at post-primary level.

This standardised school year has applied since 2004 under agreements made between representatives of schools, teacher unions and parents’ organisations.

Seeking advice

School management bodies say they have received “hundreds” of questions from member schools in recent weeks seeking advice on the duration of the school year.

One source said: “We’re in the dark. We don’t know what the delay is. Maybe there is concern over how news of a shortened school year will be received by parents.”

The education system has faced criticism in the past over the length of the school year and school holidays at second level, in particular.

A European Commission analysis found that secondary school students in Ireland have one of the shortest school years in Europe.

Of the 37 countries included in the study, only France, Cyprus and Greece had a shorter school year.

Teachers’ unions, however, say these figures are misleading and that secondary students in Ireland have slightly longer instruction time compared to the EU average.

The number of days students in Ireland at primary level spend at school is closer to the European norm.

Separately, new advice on whether face masks should remain mandatory in schools is expected shortly.

Minister for Education Norma Foley said the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) is due to meet on Thursday next to review safety measures in schools such as mask wearing, physical distancing and other limits on school activities.

Updated guidance is due to issue in advance of the return of school following the mid-term break on February 28th.

Ms Foley said public health measures that have applied in schools have been a source of reassurance for many.

Challenges

She said she understood the challenges posed by risk mitigation measures but said they had allowed the return of in-person teaching.

School managers and teachers’ unions in Ireland say they are opposed to a sudden relaxation of measures give the extent to which Covid-19 is continuing to circulate in schools.

Séamus Mulconry, general secretary of the Catholic Primary Schools Management Association, which supports more than 2,800 primary schools, urged a cautious easing of restrictions.

“The pandemic may be over for much of the public, but it is not over for schools,” he said.