Ahh, the school holidays.
If you’re a kid, that “Ahh” is one of excitement – eating your body weight in ice cream and a week cannonballing into the pool at Butlins.
For the parents, the “Ahh” is more likely pronounced, “ARRGGHH” – for many, many reasons. I’m sure it’s a relief for all to return to some sort of normality when the holidays are over.
For as long as many people can remember, the UK summer holidays are set at six to eight weeks from June through to August. It’s ingrained into society – every year, businesses are left wondering how they’ll survive knowing 80% of the adults won’t be there, and your drink in a pub is likely to be served by a student who has just woken up.
But the roads will be lovely and clear at 8am…
How do the summer holidays compare to other countries? Here are some examples:
Finland – 11 weeks, June to August
Italy – 13 weeks, June to September
Japan – 6 weeks, July to August
USA – 8-12 weeks, May to June (varies within state and region)
Why are school holidays so different in each country?
So who decided on 6 weeks for the majority of students in the UK? According to this article from Oxford Royale, for the UK, it may go as far back as the Middle Ages and their holy pilgrimmages – a chance to take some time off work and travel across the world and back.
Elsewhere, Italy has the longest summer holiday period of 13 weeks. It’s believed this dates back to farmers following the wheat cycle and having their children around to help.
Both are very good examples of the past continuing through to the present day – it’s been the same for so long, why amend it?
But just like the annual changing of clocks in the UK, one could argue – if something introduced hundreds of years ago is no longer relevant, why is it still being done?
Are 6 weeks of school holidays too long? Or not long enough?
These days, the UK summer holidays are centred around education. The school year is factored around it, with the new academic year starting in August. The kids are back, with a brand new pencil case, lunch box and their name written on EVERYTHING. They’re excited to meet up with their friends again, although it soon dawns on them that they have to get their thinking heads back on, followed by the sudden realisation that they can’t really remember much.
So if no-one can remember anything, do we need to have such a long break in the first place? Let’s look at this in more detail:
The Good: The positives of school holidays
From an educational view, multiple weeks off allows schools the time to revamp curriculums for the following year, to mark exam papers, and for some teachers, to attend their own classes to keep their qualifications up to date.
And (arguably) more importantly, it allows for everyone to have some well-earned downtime. As we all know, taking a break is so important for our mental health and having the time to invest in your own personal interests, catching up with your friends and family and even just sitting in the garden knowing you don’t have to be anywhere is priceless.
For example, in South Korea, their summer holiday only consists of 4 weeks, and pretty much everyone takes their holidays at the same time – to the point where even general shop owners shut down to go on holiday themselves. After all, what’s the point of being open, if there is no-one to sell your wares to? So let’s down tools, we ALL take a break, and then get back to it. It’s a very good example of the collectivist culture of this country.
The Bad: The negatives of school holidays
Ever heard of Summer Learning Loss? There’s been so much research into this but in a nutshell, taking a summer break causes you to forget what you’ve learnt – one month’s worth per year, to be precise.
So, in the same way that leg muscles need time to “remember” how to bounce back from injury and get back into running a 10k, the brain also requires time to return to learning mode and recall what’s been taught. This leads some to argue that 6 weeks is too long as it causes schools to backtrack a month’s worth of content before they can even begin to start teaching the new academic curriculum.
There have been campaigns in various countries for change. In Italy, where the summer holidays are 13 weeks long, Minister Giuliano Poletti proposed a shortening of the holidays and bringing back a month to the education system in 2015. However, this didn’t work, with a counter argument that keeping children in school during the hottest periods of the year would be detrimental to their health – especially for those who live in the more southern areas of the country.
Finally, let’s not forget the financial burden of the holidays. Not only do holiday agencies exploit and raise the price of a week away to astronomical levels, the use of food banks is becoming much more commonplace as parents struggle to afford to feed their children for such a long period of time, never mind taking them away on a holiday. Children from a low income family will have less access to educational resources and they fall into the highest risk category when it comes to learning loss, including experiencing a decline in their mental health.
It just goes to show how fundamentally important the school system is to society, and why it’s so important to get it right.
The solution: It’s all about balance
So, is having multiple weeks off worth the Summer Learning Loss that seems so commonplace? I suppose it depends on how it’s taken. For example, whilst sharing the same 6-week timescale as the UK, Japanese children are issued with “Summer Holiday Homework”, which not only focuses on recapping the year just taken but builds in tasks such as developing observational skills by detailing the growth of a plant or musical skills by practising the recorder. When comparing the national average learning outcomes of the two countries, Japan comes out above the UK, which seems to indicate the importance of continuing the learning process throughout the summer season.
And there are also anomalies. For example, Finland has one of the longest holiday allowance of 11 weeks, but the country consistantly ranks high in worldwide educational performance tables. Why? This report suggests 10 reasons why – overall, it suggests that as Finland’s approach and attitude towards the quality and delivery of the education provided to the students is so effective, taking an 11 week holiday is having next to no detrimental effect on students whatsoever.
Whilst it sounds like a no-brainer to immediately implement the Finnish education system asap, we all know it’s not that easy. The time, money and resources required to change something so deeply engrained in society would be huge – although that’s not to say it couldn’t be done.
So what do you think? What’s the situation in your native country and do you think it works? Are you a teacher and do you see the effects of Summer Learning Loss? Are you a parent and feel the summer holidays are too long / short? What do you think should be changed?
We’d love to hear your thoughts!