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The academic year starts somewhere in the middle of the normal calendar year in almost all schools. Even if the courses are divided into semesters, the Fall term is essentially considered to be the beginning of a new academic year. It is also true for the financial year in most places.

  1. Why doesn't the academic year start in January?

  2. If the reasons are so prevalent, then why didn't the normal calendar year start in the month of August, for example?

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    I was going to post a cheeky comment about how most of the world lives below the equator, but it turned out that only ~12% does. – Mateen Ulhaq Jan 2 '16 at 8:05
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    Aside from all the places where it does start in Januray (iirc, Hong Kong being one), my understanding is that the key point is harvest - it was all-hands-on-deck in the summer, so the long break goes then. – Jessica B Jan 2 '16 at 8:19
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    Note that the new year only starts on January 1st in the Gregorian calendar: even in Europe, this goes back less than 500 years! – jakebeal Jan 2 '16 at 11:23
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    Boring but true: the academic calendar follows the calendar of primary and secondary schools. A new year begins when the students get their high school graduation and are ready to enrol, move, and start with their undergraduate studies. – Federico Poloni Jan 2 '16 at 16:18
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    @DavidRicherby Well, you can ask that question on primaryschool.stackexchange.com, when it opens. :) – Federico Poloni Jan 3 '16 at 13:38
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Basically because schooling is the inverse of farming. That is: Historically farming and feeding the family (and community) took precedence over all other considerations. This is primarily a job that takes place through the spring, summer, and fall -- with little or no activity possible in the winter. Therefore in most cultures the original calendar year starts in the winter and so spans one farming cycle, i.e., spring-summer-fall (in the original Roman calendar, the winter period didn't even have assigned months!).

When schooling historically started to be of some value, it came secondary to farming, and occurred only as farming allows. So the winter is an excellent time for it, because no useful farming can be done. On the other hand, the harvest season, around August-September, is the busiest time for farming, and critical in traditional communities to have "all hands on deck" for that work, and thus schooling would not occur at that time. And therefore the main school schedule would begin after the fall harvest, and run through to the summer of the next year.

In short, the fact that schooling and farming have an inverse schedule is not too surprising, because traditionally the former only occurred in the time not being used for the latter. Having grown up on a farm in the U.S. in the 1970's, I still experienced some tension between my family and school, because I would need to be out of school for about a week in September for a particular job that we were expected to do with our livestock at that time.

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    This is interesting! I could have never imagined farming coming into picture. Kudos! – Marvin Jan 2 '16 at 16:02
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    There is another explanation in my country. Usually we have floods in the summer (not in the cities of course), so we should wait for them to leave before schooling. The bottom line is that the start of the academic year depends on the weather. – Ooker Jan 2 '16 at 17:40
  • where do you live @Saurav? of course the academic years are delimited by the "summer vacation", whether the students were working on a farm or traveling or at summer camp. if the academic year is short enough, it is possible to have the two semesters delimited by the Christmas break. most secondary schools divide the two semesters at some weekend toward the end of January. some colleges have a "4-1-4" system where there is a special, one month "Jan-term" in January. – robert bristow-johnson Jan 2 '16 at 19:05
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    This is a great answer and makes a lot of sense, but I think it could use some sources to back up that this is actually the historical reason. – Martin Ender Jan 3 '16 at 13:23
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    history.powys.org.uk/school1/llanfyllin/scarcity.shtml may offer a starting point, it's a website for children, but contains sources direct from school log books at the time. – James Snell Jan 3 '16 at 15:30
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Apparently I can answer but not comment with such a new account. This is really more of a comment to Daniel R. Collins' great answer.

Anyway, in my country, there's a concept of the "summer holidays" when kids otherwise going to school are expected to relax and/or do other non-school-related activities (such as summer camps - note that "winter camps", if any, are much rarer). This is basically June to August (July to August for students, whose classes end later).

As far as I understand it, these holidays are in the summer (as opposed to winter) because the weather in summer is much more pleasant, and thus much more appropriate for relaxationary activities (such as country vacations, or traveling). And, yes, historically (and partly to this day), there's some farming-related stuff too (for the kids to help with at some of the summer camps; this is not much the case today, except in the especially rural areas, but was very popular as recently as several decades ago).


Incidentally - something that did not come up in Daniel R. Collins' answer, or indeed, as I write it, anywhere eise in the comments - the calendar year does not necessarily start in January; in fact this seems to be a (historically speaking) rather new tradition even where it does. (I do not know where it originates; it might have had to do with Christmas.)

In particular, the Hebrew (and therefore Israeli) calendar year starts in September, not much after the academic year. The Muslim calendar year doesn't really start at any seasonally defined point at all; except in Iran and Afghanistan, where it starts in March.

More historically, the British calendar year started in March prior to 1752 (the financial year still does, though it's been moved to April by the change to Gregorian). The Russian calendar year started in September during the 16th and 17th centuries (and in March before that). Of course, as mentioned by vonbrand, the old Roman year started in March (from which the names of our autumn months originate).

Other traditions have yet other starting dates for the calendar year; I've heard somewhere that for every day of the year there's a tradition somewhere that puts the New Year on that day. That much is probably not true, but there are definitely very many. Not many of them, save for the modern Gregorian one, are in January (the traditional Chinese new year almost is, but it's more often in early February); December seems slightly more common (mainly due to the winter solstice).

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In addition to the existing answers there would be a strong historical link (as least in the UK and Ireland) to the festival of Michaelmas (The feast of St. Michael the Archangel) at the end of September. Many Universities such as Oxford and Cambridge still use the phrase Michaelmas term to define the term from September to December. It is also the start of the year for the legal system in the UK and Ireland

According to A History of the University of Cambridge: Volume 1, The University to 1546 By Damian Riehl Leader on p29 (can be found on google books) the Michaelmas academic term started from 9 October since the Middle ages.

The Historic UK website gives the following explanation as to why this time of year (late September/Early October) was also adopted for the academic year.

There are traditionally four “quarter days” in a year (Lady Day (25th March), Midsummer (24th June), Michaelmas (29th September) and Christmas (25th December)). They are spaced three months apart, on religious festivals, usually close to the solstices or equinoxes. They were the four dates on which servants were hired, rents due or leases begun. It used to be said that harvest had to be completed by Michaelmas, almost like the marking of the end of the productive season and the beginning of the new cycle of farming. It was the time at which new servants were hired or land was exchanged and debts were paid. This is how it came to be for Michaelmas to be the time for electing magistrates and also the beginning of legal and university terms.

It would appear that the tradition of September/October is linked to early medieval traditions of demarcation of the year which were based more on religious festivals that also had a civil significances such as preparing accounts, signing leases etc.

Here is a useful document on the Organisation of the Academic year in EU states for 2014/15. Most countries follow a August-October start to the academic year.

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In Indonesia, there had been an academic calendar start on January (1966 to 1979). Daoed Joesoef (Minister of Education and Culture of Indonesia at that time) changed academic-calendar to start on July in 1979. One of the main reason was following other country academic calendar. Plenty of students who willing to continue their study in oversea had to wait for six month or more.

So, the answer of your first question is: following the rest of the world.

For the second question, Why not "normal" calendar started on August? It's complicated. British adopt January as a new calendar since 1751. (CMIIW)

The Byzantine Empire used a year starting on 1 Sep, but they didn’t count years since the birth of Christ, instead they counted years since the creation of the world which they dated to 1 September 5509 B.C.E. (Source: http://www.webexhibits.org/calendars/year-history.html)

August is named after Rome Emperor, Augustus since 8 BCE, and I think it's better then sextilish (prior name, the sixth month, but sound like sex-thing-ish).

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Just to add that there are at least two countries — Malaysia and Singapore — where the academic year (at least for pre-tertiary institutions) simply follows the calendar year and begins at the start of January.

Incidentally, both are near the equator and so have no seasons, so this is perfectly consistent with the farming explanation given above (this is not to say that that explanation is necessarily correct).

(Note though that the tertiary institutions in those countries do follow the more standard American/European academic calendars.)

  • It's not true that countries near the equator have "no season". Typically there's the monsoon and the dry seasons. – user9646 Jul 24 '17 at 12:25
  • In the southern hemisphere, the academic year coincides with the calendar year, since the new year is in the middle of summer. – Felipe Voloch Jul 25 '17 at 6:36

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