We asked education experts if a four-week break would be better for children, parents, and teachers.
If you’re a working parent, you might feel like you’re at the start of an endurance test this week: the summer holidays have begun.
Many families will be getting by with a six-week childcare patchwork that includes annual leave, some holiday clubs, and some help from relatives. But it’s far from easy to set this up – summer childcare is beset by growing shortages and rising fees, many parents do not have relatives locally, and finding several weeks’ worth of activities on a tight budget can be hard.
And so you might be wondering: Wouldn’t it be better for all of us if the summer holidays were a bit shorter? The Welsh government is considering it and a former Ofsted chief has called for it. We put our questions to some education experts…
We don’t know for certain where the six-week break came from. One theory is that elite public schools followed parliament’s and courts’ summer recess, so these upper-class families could travel and have holidays, and this was simply replicated when the state school system began to serve all children. Another common theory is that the long break is based on agricultural patterns, as young people were needed to work in the fields (although this one is increasingly contested).
“There are different views about it, but what we know for sure is that it wasn’t designed for young people’s minds or brains. There wasn’t an educational or pedagogical rationale for this – it’s just something we’ve inherited,” says Lee Elliot Major, a professor of social mobility at Exeter University, who has worked extensively on how to close school attainment gaps between children from richer and poorer households.
Despite this, a long school summer break is consistent across developed countries. England and Wales have six weeks off, and Scotland has 6-7 weeks depending on the region, which is in line with countries such as Germany. Some nations have even longer – US states have at least eight weeks, and Spanish children have up to three months off and no half-term breaks (although this is likely to be due to their hotter summers).
For children, a shorter break could help to tackle “summer learning loss”, where some pupils return to school in the autumn with lower attainment in core skills such as literacy. This disproportionately affects children from disadvantaged backgrounds, some studies have shown, although the gap wasn’t found across all age-groups and school subjects.
For low-income families, it can also be particularly hard to fill a long holiday with activities that help children to explore and develop. The current summer set-up doesn’t just create an attainment divide in terms of academic skills, but also an “enrichment divide” in terms of interesting experiences, says Elliot Major.
Many working parents would also be able to spread their annual leave and holiday childcare costs more evenly throughout the year. Teachers might also benefit from more regular breaks, both for school-planning and for their own work-life balance.
Some education experts say that teachers benefit from having a long summer break to fully “reset” and do professional development activities, before taking charge of a new class in the autumn. Some parents also remember their own long summers fondly and want their children to have similar experiences.
However there isn’t consistent research or polling showing that teachers would reject shorter summer holidays, says Jon Kay, head of evidence synthesis at the Education Endowment Foundation. “It’s such a messy evidence base, with different findings from different countries,” he says.
For example, Kay says some US schools found that switching to a “year-round” calendar was unpopular with some teachers, while polling in Wales last year showed that 63% of the education workforce would choose a set-up with a shorter summer and more regular breaks.
Changing the school calendar is a huge undertaking – and it can only be truly effective if done on a large scale. It’s tricky to trial a shorter summer break at some schools, partly because this would create a disjointed system for families with children at different schools, as well as for teachers whose children attend other schools.
As a result, any country considering this move has few examples to follow. There is little evidence as to whether shorter summers have positive impacts, simply “because there aren’t that many places that [have done it where] you could get a comparison,” Kay says.
For now, England and Scotland are likely to have a six-week summer for some time to come. But Wales will start a public consultation on this issue in the 2023-24 school year. Watch this space…