Shifting start of Japan’s academic year to September a tough assignment
7:56 am, May 12, 2020

By Hiroyuki Doi and Yuichi Kobayashi / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writers

From the article:

Due to the prolonged closure of schools amid the spread of the new coronavirus, the idea has emerged of shifting the start of the academic year to autumn, with students beginning school in September.

Introducing a new school schedule has been suggested as both a measure to cope with the pandemic and a way for Japan to get into step with other countries, where starting the academic year in September is the mainstream.

However, experts have pointed out there would be many difficulties in making this idea a reality, and the government is moving ahead with discussions cautiously, aiming to hammer out a course of action in June.

“It has reached a point where the learning delays may not be recoverable [within this academic year] without strain,” Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Minister Koichi Hagiuda said candidly at a press conference on May 1. He was speaking approximately two months after schools — including elementary schools, junior and senior high schools — had closed across the country.

The idea of shifting the opening of the new school year to September has arisen due to serious delays in learning as a result of the prolonged closures, and a sense of crisis has grown as to whether an annual course of study can possibly be completed within this academic year as originally scheduled.

The principal of a municipal high school in Tokyo said, “If the restart is put off further, we won’t be able to recover from the learning delay even if extra classes are held on Saturdays and all the summer holidays are canceled.”

The education ministry is primarily considering the idea of a “17-month-long school year” lasting from April 2020 through August 2021, extending the current school year by roughly half a year. The schedule for entrance exams would be put back, with the delays in learning hopefully to be recouped by September 2021 when a new academic year would be slated to start.

In addition, the ministry plans to promote preparation for and the introduction of simultaneous, interactive online guidance, which only 5% of local governments are implementing at present.

In some districts of the country, including Iwate Prefecture, where no cases of infection have been reported, and Tottori Prefecture, where the number of infections remains in single digits, schools restarted after the end of the Golden Week holiday period.

Other schools have remained closed but started online guidance, while some are having students “learn by themselves,” distributing assignments on paper in consideration of families with insufficient access to the internet.

In light of these efforts, the ministry also aims at having the learning at schools start all over again with the shifted start of a new academic year to September, to limit the widening of educational disparities due to differences among regions and in home environments.

Shifting the beginning of a new school year to September has been discussed on and off over the years. In Japan, September admission into school was briefly adopted in the early Meiji era. In the mid-Meiji era, however, it shifted to April, which corresponds with the start of the fiscal year for the national government, and it has remained that way ever since.

But because it is typical in foreign countries for the academic year to start in autumn, the idea of starting Japan’s school year in September has repeatedly been taken up for discussion, mainly by universities looking at having their students studying abroad and drawing foreign students to study in Japan.

In 1987, the Ad Hoc Council on Education under the administration of then Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, said in its final report that the “admission into school in autumn” would be beneficial. The University of Tokyo in 2011 made its own efforts to try to shift entrance into the school to autumn. However, other universities would not follow suit, so the idea was shelved.

On April 29, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told the House of Representatives Budget Committee: “It is also true that September is the mainstream in the international community as the time to start the school year. I would like to consider a wide range of options regarding shifting the school year.”

With this remark, discussions within the government suddenly accelerated. As the likely challenges have now been sifted through under the leadership of Kazuhiro Sugita, the deputy chief cabinet secretary, the government is expected to submit relevant bills to an extraordinary Diet session in autumn, if it aims to introduce a September start of the new school year.

According to a government source, the option of shifting the start of the new school year to September emerged within the education ministry sometime around March, at about the time Abe asked all schools across the country to close amid the spread of the new coronavirus. It was education minister Hagiuda who consulted with Abe on the issue behind the scenes.

Abe had earlier advocated the “matriculation of students in universities in September.” The Council for the Implementation of Education Rebuilding, a panel set up within the government in 2007 when he led his first administration, compiled a proposal to promote the matriculation of students in universities in September.

During the campaign for the lower house election in 2012, through which Abe eventually returned to power, he incorporated that idea in his campaign pledges. Abe may hope to put the process in motion to introduce a new start of the school year, which would become a legacy for his administration.

This time, however, not only universities but also schools in the compulsory education system would be starting in September. A number of legal and systemic changes would be needed, raising the hurdles to this idea in one swoop. For instance, the School Education Law stipulates the age at which children start compulsory education, while the Public Finance Law says the fiscal year for the national government “starts on April 1 and ends on March 31 the following year.”

During a press conference on May 8, Finance Minister Taro Aso pointed out that many foreign countries have differences in their fiscal year and the start of the school year, saying, “Why should it [the fiscal year] be changed in Japan?” This hinted that he considers it desirable for the current fiscal year to be kept intact.

Adjustments during the transition phase are also considered vital. As the time of graduation from nursery schools and the time of admission into elementary schools would differ, the burden on parents would increase, if society is not sufficiently ready to care for these children during the several-month gap.

During the meeting of the National Governors’ Association held on April 29, Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike and Osaka Gov. Hirofumi Yoshimura called for introducing a new school year. However, others advocated caution, with Nara Gov. Shogo Arai saying, “It’s questionable whether we can bring about a solution or work out a conclusion at a juncture like this.”