The big debate: should school holidays be shortened?

The big debate: should school holidays be shortened?

Part of the post-pandemic educational debate focused on summer holidays. Some politicians suggested reducing the summer break to help learner catch up on lost learning, but other educational experts argued that both learners and teachers need a long summer break to recharge their batteries. This...


Part of the post-pandemic educational debate focused on summer holidays. Some politicians suggested reducing the summer break to help learner catch up on lost learning, but other educational experts argued that both learners and teachers need a long summer break to recharge their batteries.

This debate around school holidays is ongoing. Do long summer breaks make sense in the modern world? Are they serving the interests of learners? Would teachers be better served with a shorter summer break, and more regular holidays throughout the year?

Let’s take a look at how school holidays work around the world, and the benefits and drawbacks of a long summer holiday.

How long are summer holidays around the world?

A long summer holiday is standard in countries around the world. Most North American schools are off for around two months over summer. In Europe, the length of the summer break varies from around six weeks in Germany and the UK, to eight weeks in Spain, Italy and Finland. Some countries, like Ireland and Turkey, have a three month break over the summer months. In contrast, Japanese and South Korean students only have a month off during summer.

In many countries, the school year has looked the same since the 19th century. But things are starting to change. For example, some regions in Belgium and Spain have shortened their summer holiday and redistributed the days across the school year.

The benefits of shortening the summer holidays

So, what are the potential benefits of a shorter summer break for parents, teachers and students?

It prevents the summer learning gap

Summer learning loss has been extensively researched, and is well documented by teachers and students. Over the long summer break, students lose some of the academic skills and knowledge they’d built up during the school year. Proponents of a shorter summer holiday argue that it will prevent this loss, meaning that students will learn more consistently all year round.

It’s better for working parents

Long summer holidays weren’t as logistically challenging for families in the past. But now that many families have two working parents, summer childcare can be challenging to organise. A shorter summer break would mean that parents can cover this time with their own annual leave.

It gives teachers more time for reinforcing learning

With more time in school, teachers will be able to further support students with in-depth learning. Instead of feeling under pressure to get through the curriculum, teachers will have the flexibility to allow students to follow their interests and encourage independent learning and discovery.

It promotes equality

The summer learning loss is just one aspect of how summer holidays can negatively impact students. Some students enjoy enriching summer breaks of foreign travel, educational summer camps and stimulating cultural activities – but this isn’t true of all students. And the students who don’t have the same level of parental input or resources come back after the holidays at a disadvantage. A shorter summer break would reduce this disparity.

The drawbacks of shortening the school holidays

However, there are some drawbacks to a shorter summer break. Let’s take a look.

Less downtime and rest for students and teachers

A Yougov poll of British teachers in both primary and secondary schools in the UK found that the vast majority – 89% and 92% respectively – are opposed to a shorter summer break. By the time the school holidays come around, most teachers are burned out and in need of a long break to switch off and recharge their batteries. The same is true of students, especially older students who spend the spring studying hard for high pressure exams.

Less bonding time for siblings

One of the most important aspects of the long summer holidays is the time that children have to bond and connect with their families. Although many parents work during some of that time, the holidays are a time when children spend long periods with their siblings. In the absence of their school friends, the summer break is a chance for siblings to play more with one another, participate in joint activities, and reinforce the sibling bond.

Fewer opportunities for students to build independence

For younger students, the freedom from the routine of the school day gives them an opportunity to make their own decisions, be creative, and pursue their own interests. Older students often look for summer jobs or internships, giving them a chance to gain independence and experience the world of work during the summer break.

What does the research say?

Researchers at the University of Glasgow looked at the effect of summer holidays using data from the Millennial Cohort Study. They found that summer holidays exacerbated inequalities in mental health and verbal cognitive ability. Younger children’s verbal cognitive ability declined during the holidays across all backgrounds. However, the 2022 study concludes that the evidence is mixed, and that school holidays as they are do not lead to significant additional educational disadvantage.

The EEF’s review found that extending the school year could have a positive impact on attainment, particularly for disadvantaged pupils. They also suggested that summer programmes which focus on providing students with stimulating environments and activities have a bigger impact on attainment than those with a purely academic focus, perhaps because the students are more engaged and eager to participate.

The Welsh government is currently considering a plan to shorten the school summer holidays from six weeks to three weeks, and redistribute the days across the school year. Their intention is to “design a school year that better supports learner and staff wellbeing, tackles inequality and is more aligned to modern family and working lives.”

What do you think? Would you welcome a shorter summer break, or are the long summer holidays sacrosanct?

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