Wednesday 26 July 2017

Why We Should Get Rid of the Long Summer Holiday

I'm about to say something that all teachers are going to hate me for.

I think we should abolish the summer holiday.

It's my third proper day of the holiday, and I'll admit I'm enjoying myself a lot, with Pokémon Go and late night chess and sitting in IKEA writing blogs (free coffee on weekdays!) And of course there's also the fact that I don't have to be around children. But as much as I love my six weeks of freedom, I think British society in general would be better off without it.

Why do we have a long summer holiday anyway? It's not unique to the UK, in fact all countries seem to have at least 6 weeks off school in the summer, and some have much longer. For example, in the US they have a glorious 3 month holiday every year! This is because, back in the day, farm children would have to help out with the harvest during those months so they would miss school, and state schools in America were almost entirely populated by farm children, so they influenced a lot of the developments of the free education system there. In Japan, where they only have 6 weeks off like us, the farm children that made up the state schools did not have to stay home to help with the harvest, because rice, the main crop of Japan, does not have an intense harvest period like corn, the main crop of the US, and is instead harvested more regularly throughout the year. In the UK, our summer holiday is shorter because our farm children didn't have much influence on the development of our school system.

But even though our summer holiday is relatively short in comparison to other countries, I still think it should be shorter. I would keep the number of school weeks the same (39 weeks on, and 13 weeks off) but I would redistribute them. I'd have smaller breaks more often. (I would also make sure there was always a week off for both Eids, but that's a separate issue).

Why do I think the summer holiday is so bad? Well for one thing, it's bad for children's health. According to a recent study by ukactive, children lose 80% of their fitness (ability to run a certain distance) over the summer holiday. This effect is apparently much more pronounced in less well-off families. Low levels of activity are not just linked to poor physical health, but also to a lower attention span and worse social skills, both of which affect a children's ability to learn and progress academically.
“Our research with Premier Sport suggests deprived children are being plonked in front of screens for hours on end, while their more affluent peers are able to maintain their fitness levels through summer camps and other activities." Dr Steven Mann, ukactive
In my opinion, anything that causes such a huge gap between children of different socio-economic backgrounds should immediately be thrown into question. How can we justify such an injustice?

In addition, students who usually receive free school meals during term time may find themselves not eating as much, or not as much high-quality food during the summer holidays, leading to worse health, and hence lower educational outcomes overall. If we distributed the holiday weeks more evenly, the continuous length of time a child may have to go without decent food would be shorter.

Another thing is students forget stuff during the holiday. They forget how to write (I remember experiencing that myself), they forget how to do maths. But some students are affected more than others. There is evidence suggesting that two-thirds of the achievement gap between disadvantaged students and well-off students can be explained by the long summer holiday, although this research is mostly American, where the summer holiday is twice as long as ours. There are plenty of studies that have measured the achievement gap over many years and found that the summer holiday appears to be mostly to blame. The reason for this seems to be that middle-class children are more likely to be taken on educational trips (like to the zoo, a museum, or on holiday abroad), are more likely to be encouraged to read and be members of the library, less likely to watch TV, and less likely to be left without parental supervision. Whilst we can create summer programmes for deprived children to give them all of these experiences, attendance would still be optional and self-selecting, so the students who need it the most would probably be those least likely to get it.

Now, I reckon the summer holiday is particularly damaging in terms of maths. I doubt that many parents, whether middle class or not, consider enriching their children's maths skills during the summer holidays. They'll happily encourage their kids to read, to visit museums, to observe nature, to experience different cultures, and so on, but are they encouraging anything mathematical? How many children out there get a bedtime maths session? Exactly. And yet a bedtime story is synonymous with good parenting. There are actually loads of opportunities for parents to keep their children's maths strong over the summer, and none of them involve filling in a workbook (side note: I used to love filling in maths workbooks during my childhood summer holidays. I also used to make my dolls and teddies do them too. In fact I'm kind of in the mood to do one now...) For example, baking requires lots of measuring and scaling, and also involves eating baked goods, so that's a win all round. Whilst driving to the seaside, talk about speed, distance and time. Play board games that involve calculations like Monopoly and Yahtzee, or geometric reasoning like chess (no blog post is complete without me mentioning the benefits of chess). Construct some pretty geometric patterns like mandalas with compasses and colour them in. This book has got lots of nice mathematical art activities.

I just realised that the above paragraph looks like I'm telling parents how to parent and that's always a very dangerous thing to do, especially for a committed child-free person like myself. Parents: I bow to your superior knowledge and expertise. These are just ideas! Please don't roast me. Thanks.

The long summer holiday is also bad for teachers. You don't believe me, do you? You probably think that the summer holiday is the only reason you're still alive. But think about this: do you ever find yourself, during term time, putting off doing something because you're too busy, and telling yourself you'll do it in the summer holiday? Or feeling tired/anxious/depressed, and telling yourself you'll feel better in the summer holiday? Or feeling like you have way too much work to do, but telling yourself you'll catch up during the summer holiday? When do you start counting down to the summer holiday? Seven weeks before? Do you ever stop to think that this focus on the summer holiday is unhealthy, and that as teachers we're actually wishing our lives away? During my phase where I was really into researching happiness, I came across the idea of the "arrival fallacy", a term coined by Tal Ben-Shahar in his book Happier. It's the way we always think "I'll be happy when...". For example, I'll be happy when I've lost 5kg, I'll be happy when I get that promotion, I'll be happy once I've got a boyfriend, and so on. It's a fallacy because by the time you arrive at that state, you have already expected to reach it, and you've already got used to it, so it doesn't actually make you feel any happier.

If we constantly chase after the summer holidays, we will never actually experience proper happiness. And even if the summer holidays do make us happy, is it really OK to only be happy six weeks out of every fifty-two? If we had more holidays but shorter ones, less emphasis would be put on the summer holiday and maybe we'd be able to enjoy ourselves a bit more throughout the year. Then again, maybe we'd just end up doing more revision classes.

Additionally, everything I wrote earlier about children becoming unhealthy over the summer is probably true to some extent for teachers too. I know that my health has already suffered this summer due to poor sleep patterns, not eating regularly, and spending way too long slumped on the sofa watching anime. If it weren't for Pokemon Go I probably wouldn't leave the house. When September comes back around it will be really difficult to get my circadian rhythms back in place and it will be a huge shock to the system. The entire first half term always feels like an uphill battle.

So, should we get rid of the long summer holiday and make it just two weeks? Let me know what you think!

Emma x x x


  1. Holidays are always very good for students, but they can loose their knowledge and skills. So, I like the shared topic.

  2. Why don't we give pupils annual leave? It's something I've been pondering for a while. It's the system they'll probably be dealing with in the workplace, allows families flexibility, provides respite for burnt-out learners, and potentially gives pupils a taste of adult responsibility in their time management.

    There could still be short shutdown periods for school renovations, and taking annual leave during exam times could be restricted, again just like in a working environment.

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  4. Emma! Can we discuss, i'm making a programme about this for BBC Radio 4.

    Many thanks

  5. As for me, I never liked summer holidays. I always preferred to stay at home during winter. Although, this is only my opinion.

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  7. Hello! My name is Julia Tena, I am a producer with BBC Radio 5 live.

    We're going to be talking about this topic for our program next week, we'd love to get in touch wiith you.



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