The long school summer holiday is under scrutiny again with renewed interest in reform sparked by the considerable variation now that individual maintained sector schools are free to set their own term dates.
The number of schools taking advantage of this freedom seems to have grown steadily, despite the undesirable consequence of parents finding that siblings in different schools have different holidays. Some pioneers have pressed ahead, reducing the summer holiday to 4 weeks and extending the half terms to give more regular bursts of school and holiday throughout the year.
The schools concerned are enthusiastic about the reform declaring that students forget what they have learned during a long break and that shorter terms ensure that they are fresher and more motivated to learn without the cumulative exhaustion that can affect students and teachers at the end of a long term.
Sadly, data to support these claims are difficult to come by (I am not sure how much longer the word ‘data’ will be considered to be a plural noun and this may be a pedantic comment). Generally in educational research conclusive outcomes are hard to secure. In medicine, the double blind clinical trial offers the tantalising prospect of a reasonably definitive outcome; patients are divided into 2 groups with each group containing individuals with the same distribution of illnesses or severity of conditions. Patients in one group are offered a conventional medicine or a placebo whilst patients in the other group are offered a new drug; crucially neither the patients nor the doctors know which treatment has been administered (hence double blind).
Compare this with the situation in education. Finding 2 equivalent schools favouring long or short summer holidays, but a similar intake of students with a comparable range of existing achievements and backgrounds, might be possible but determining whether any improvements in educational attainment 2 or 3 years later are due to the difference in term dates is more difficult. Eliminating variations in the quality of teaching, the approach of the students and the ethos of the school would be very challenging. In addition there is always a powerful placebo effect in education; almost any new initiative (seemingly however daft) will produce at least a short term boost in performance; students and teachers will respond to the excitement of something new and try harder and the schools (and researchers) have a vested interest in the success of the innovation.
In this case, all the participants, whether students, parents or teachers would be fully aware of which term date model they were experiencing, in contrast to the blind nature of the participants and the researchers in the clinical trial. Regular readers of this blog will also be aware of the apparent difficulties of measuring educational attainment, let alone small changes in educational attainment.
Any observed effects might also be larger in some subjects rather than others; perhaps a long holiday offers more opportunity for independent study in Art than in Mathematics producing less impact on progress in the former subject. With limited data to inform our views and an array of pros and cons, there is only the usual human recourse to anecdote and prejudice.
International comparisons suggest that there would be little benefit to shortening the summer holiday with Finnish children famously achieving high levels of educational attainment despite a massive 12 week summer holiday and most European school children having a longer summer break than their peers in the UK.
In the USA students enjoy a 3 month summer holiday although they have to manage without half-terms and receive only 2 weeks holiday at Christmas and 1 week at Easter, a much more extreme arrangement than in the UK. The long weeks of school in the USA are balanced with a long-established and cherished tradition which sees students spending a couple of months on summer camp in the woods (outdoor learning on a grand scale) although many choose sports camps or academic activity weeks as in the UK.
Starting the summer holiday later in July might mean lengthening other holidays and reducing the teaching time for those in public examination years unless the examination dates were pushed back (an unlikely reform). This would also produce more holiday time when the weather is worse and might pile more pressure on the travel industry to deal with the same number of people wishing to fly or at least holiday in a shorter period; the latter change would be likely to produce a disheartening increase in prices.
Of course school holidays present an expensive and logistically complicated problem for working parents; a blend of time for children to rest at home and develop family relationships and friendships plus some structured activities is probably the ideal but is near impossible to achieve.
For those parents with children who are quick to succumb to boredom, I offer the consoling thought that periods of relative inactivity may boost creativity as an absence of external stimulation forces us to look inside ourselves for inspiration.
Perhaps a breather from the rigid routines of school term, a pause from the constant barrage of electronic information facilitated by email, mobile phone and the internet and a chance to reflect upon the larger questions of life will produce fresh vision, verve and vitality; at least that is what I shall be telling the Governors when asked what I did over the summer.
Paul Owen is on holiday.