The Perse School

Could changing school holidays improve educational attainment?

In these cash strapped time heads need to identify low or no cost ways of improving pupil performance.  Unsurprisingly opportunities for educational gain without financial pain have been well scrutinised, and any that remain untouched do so because they are politically unpalatable.  Perhaps the most obvious of these is the reform of the traditional three term school year.

The British school year has its origins in a long gone agricultural society where children were a vital source of harvest labour.  Those children not employed on farms were looked after by stay at home mothers.  The world has moved on, agriculture is mechanised and dual income earning parents the norm, but the school year remains resolutely Victorian.

Teachers and pupils jealously guard their holidays, often but not exclusively for good reasons, and heads have more pressing issues to address than the shape of the school year.  The forces of inertia are strong.

However, now might be the time to think again and look in detail at a school year of four terms each eight to ten weeks in length.  There is growing evidence from around the world that a simple reorganisation of the school year, with no overall increase in teaching time, could yield improvements in academic outcomes and behavioural standards.  A move to a four term year with more frequent but shorter holidays, as in Singapore and Australia, could address some of the weaknesses of our current three term system.

In particular a shorter summer holiday could reduce the extent of the ‘learning loss’ that pupils experience over long holidays as they forget skills and knowledge learnt in class.  American studies suggest that the ‘learning loss’ is greatest amongst those children from less advantaged backgrounds.  Parents of such children can struggle to provide the educational resources, opportunities and support that are more prevalent in advantaged households where parents arrange programmes of ‘improving’ holiday activities.  The summer learning loss can amount to two to three months of school time each year, and is greatest in subjects like maths and foreign languages which need regular practise.

It is not just long holidays that can be disadvantageous, long terms also have a negative effect.  A fifteen week winter term can become a sapping stamina test for even the most energetic teachers and students.  As the days draw in and fatigue builds, teaching and learning suffer, standards of behaviour slip, rates of illness and absenteeism rise.

Discussions about the school year can quickly descend into teacher bashing.  For the record, I have never met a teacher who did not work in the ‘holidays’.  ‘Holidays’ are when most teachers work from home researching and creating new resources and courses.  In schools like The Perse with its commitment to extracurricular education, holidays are also the time when students and staff participate in sports tours, cultural exchanges, study visits and expeditions.  These are wonderful learning opportunities that can only take place in holiday time.  Holidays are also when schools redecorate, refurbish and improve their facilities, and yes teachers do need time away from students.  Teaching is a demanding profession – performing in front of a class who scrutinise your every word from 8.30am – 4pm day in day out is not for the faint hearted.

The recent, stalled efforts of Nottingham City Council to introduce a five term school year demonstrate this is a high octane topic that generates powerful emotions.  However, on the other side of the world Tasmania is moving from a three to a four term year.   We should watch the move carefully to see if it delivers on the promised benefits.  If all goes according to plan with the Tasmanian four term year, children will learn more and forget less, teachers will be more effective and less fatigued, behaviour will improve and there will be real gains in educational attainment (especially for the most disadvantaged) for little expenditure.  Parents also gain as Australian states operate staggered school holidays which spread the peak tourist season lowering prices for family breaks.  This reduces the temptation to take children out of class in term time for cheaper holidays and thus improves attendance.

It may all be too good to be true, but the Department of Education should keep a watchful eye on events down under.

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  1. 20 Sep 2012

    Susan Perry

    Although educated in the UK (so enjoying long summer holidays) we have just returned from South Africa and I can vouch for the benefits of the four term year, not only for working parents (finding alternative care for two to four weeks is much simpler than six to eight weeks) but also for the children. Tolerance levels and patience between parents and children are stretched to breaking point by the end of the summer. But sadly we have a system comprised largely of politicians that practice the dark art of iteration with a touch of post-modern irony; those who are of an age and/or stage to reform the system can look back through rose-tinted bi-focals on halcyon summers spent fishing, going on Scout camp or cycling along the riverbank. The reality is that 'children today' are less able to entertain themselves, have shorter attention spans, have lower boredom thresholds and are seeking gratification 'now' (faster than instant) and maximum thrills. Not their fault, simply a sign of the times...It would be interesting to see statistics on the retention levels of 'swing returnees', i.e. those who are supposed to retun to school at the age of 16 but find the long summer holiday distracting or 'entertaining' enough that they find themselves alternatively occupied by the start of the new school year. (And before anyone lectures me on 'Who's in charge here, parents or their children?', let's look outside the public school system and make this debate about the entire educational spectrum. Now say it.). As for me? I loved my long summer holidays. 1976... What a summer. Now, where did I put those rosy specs?
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