Stopping the Summer Slide in Learning

  • 19th September 2017
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When I first became a teacher, I recall a friend telling me that the best part of being a teacher was the month of August.  Having  experienced 21 Augusts not working in schools I whole-heartedly agree.

However, no other profession outside of education takes a six week break during the year, so why are schools the exception?

It’s all history’s fault! In Britain the school calendar is rooted in agriculture, as historically children were needed to help with planting and harvesting crops.  Thankfully this is no longer the case (even where I live in Yorkshire). 

Today, the school holidays are often met by groans from struggling parents who work full-time and have to juggle the logistics and practicalities of childcare which is often an expensive and difficult struggle, especially during the long summer break.

There is also mounting evidence of summer learning loss. Research indicates that by the end of summer, pupils perform on average, one month behind where they left off in the spring, and this “gap” in learning disproportionately affects students from low-income families.  The National Summer Learning Association (NSLA) in America produced an interesting study showed low-income students lost  on average 2-3 months in reading skills, while middle-income students made slight gains.  However in maths, students lost on average 2 months of maths skill regardless of socio-economic background.

In 2014, the National Association of Headteachers debated scrapping the current six week summer holiday in favour of a more staggered term structure. They argued that the current timings of terms mean that schools are less productive in the months leading up to summer.  The former UK education secretary Michael Gove was also in favour of scrapping the summer break; however he was also in favour of cutting teacher’s pensions, increasing working hours, and removing schools from Local Authority control. Needless to say, he was the most unpopular education secretary in decades.

This radical proposal of restructuring terms never really got off the ground.  In 2014, Headteachers and governors were given powers to control the school calendar and make decisions about term dates, but still the vast majority continue to hold onto the six week summer break.

So is this the case in other countries?  If there is a link to students losing progress when they return after a summer break, is this true across the globe?

Chinese schools in Shanghai, Hong Kong and Taipei, which consistently top the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) world ranking tables, have summer holidays of approximately one month (this varies by region), and Chinese pupils often spend their breaks attending additional classes or studying for exams. Students in the United States only attend school on average 180 days a year, and in the UK for 190 days, compared with an OECD average of 195 days, and 208 days in East Asian countries.

But while the summer loss in learning (or the ‘summer slide’ as the American’s call it) is a major concern, research has failed to prove a significant link between the length of the school year and academic achievement. Finland has both one of the shortest school years (with a ten to eleven week summer break) and some of the best test results in international education rankings.

It seems that in countries where learning is culturally seen as joint responsibility between families and schools then the ‘summer slide’ has less effect on attainment at the end of school.  In countries where students attain highly, school summer camps are provided for children to attend which focus on teamwork, developing social skills and activity-based learning.  In the UK, this provision falls on privately-funded companies and many low-income families cannot afford to send their children to these summer camps.

So what can schools and families do to ensure their children are ready for the new school year? In my view, schools should be working alongside families all year to provide resources and ideas that parents can use in learning with their children at home.

This doesn’t mean that parents need to provide a daily schedule of learning tasks, but instead an understanding that reading with your child for 10-15 minutes a day can make a massive difference.  Pointing out birds and insects on the way to the park; limiting the time spent on mobile phones and computers and going outside to visit galleries, leisure centres and museums – they all show children that learning doesn’t stop when school closes.