Pupils’ learning stalls during the long summer break

25 Aug

Variety may be the spice of life but no change in educational policy and practice is nearly as welcome for teachers as the long summer holidays.   Having worked their socks off during the academic year, they enjoy the prospect of hanging them (the socks) up during the much-deserved five-to-six-week break.   However, school leaders are concerned about the impact the lengthy summer break has on children’s learning.  Three-quarters of the 1,000+ headteachers polled by The Key, an educational consultancy,   expressed fear that the summer holidays are detrimental to children’s learning and cause them to regress.   Primary headteachers (77%) appear to be more worried than secondary ones (60%).

Across both, the primary and secondary, sectors 70% of headteachers established reading schemes during the recess and 27% used the last two weeks of the academic year to move pupils a year up to aid in preparing them for the trials and tribulations of the next academic year.   Around 11% of secondary headteachers introduced compulsory summer programmes to assist pupils who otherwise could have been kept back a year.  

Currently, all schools, which are voluntary aided, foundation and free schools and academies, and where governors are the employers of staff, control their own admission arrangements and are the “owners” of the site, can set their own terms and holidays.   From the next academic year, this power will be extended to the rest of the maintained institutions.

Michael Gove, former Education Secretary, proposed to schools and local authorities that the summer holidays be shortened to no more than four weeks.  The National Association of Headteachers (NAHT) discussed the idea but it was voted down at its conference earlier in 2014.

This is not surprising given that headteachers need the first week of a summer holiday to catch up on lost ground and the last week to prepare for the next academic year.   Besides, England and Wales already have (together with Germany and Denmark) the shortest summer holidays in Europe.   Italy, Turkey and Estonia close for 13 weeks – as also do most schools in the country across the pond, the United States.

There is no doubt that long holidays are detrimental to children’s intellectual development – especially those who come from the less-heeled sector of our society.  The academic research has validated this.   One study in the United States concluded that 67% (two thirds) of the reading gap between the rich and the poor 13-year-olds was caused by the summer holidays.

To deal with the deficit, 81% of primary headteachers polled by The Key organised reading programmes during this period.  However, only 46% of secondary headteachers did so.

In 2013, the Reading Agency, a charity, signed up 810,000 primary-aged children to the Summer Reading Challenge.  The theme for this year – i.e. 2014 – was Mythical MazeChildren are permitted to read whatever they like – books on facts and jokes and in pictures or audio books – as long as they are borrowed from the library.  Every time a child finishes a book, she/he gets a sticker and reward by way of a certificate.

Andrew Carter, Headteacher of South Farnham School in Surrey, who is conducting a government review of teacher training, is against shorter holidays, albeit he is partial to schools changing their holidays “a bit”.  He said: “….Independent schools shut down before the state schools and come back afterwards. They don’t worry about learning loss because they are focused.”

This comment will incense many Headteachers from the maintained sector, especially as children from deprived backgrounds tend to be conspicuous by their absence from the rolls of independent schools.

At St Peter’s Catholic School, year 11 pupils on a cusp of embarking on their A levels are given a two-week project to complete over the summer holidays to ease them into the new academic year and compensate for the holiday loss of learning.  The important aspect of such exercises is that teachers must be willing to mark the work of the pupils otherwise pupils/students will consider that what they do is futile and consequently be turned off.

Establishing a free-for-all with every school governing body having the power to set its own terms and holidays is not going to please parents and even school staff – teaching, administrative and support staff members – because of the prospect of their having their children at different schools and academies which would make child care arrangements a nightmare.

It appears that the only way of cutting the Gordian Knot is for the government to legislate for all schools on terms and holidays.   But who is going to listen, particular as we approach the next elections? In doing so, the government would do well to keep things as they are leaving schools, parents and the voluntary sector to use their best endeavours to mitigate children’s learning loss during the summer break with stimulating educational programmes.

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