View Dr Jonathan Doherty's video blog on this subject on our Leeds Trinity University Youtube channel.
Growing up in Ireland, school summer holidays for me were eight weeks long, and gave me plenty of time to enjoy the 'downtime' away from school. However, I often went back in September feeling rather demotivated and not particularly looking forward to school! This is still the case for many young people today and is one of the reasons why memories of long, hot summer days and carefree weeks away from school should be a thing of the past.
Pressures in schools have increased over the years – children have to be 'school-ready' by the age of five and are pushed to achieve and make progress through each year of school, from Primary through to Secondary.
Children need to balance the hours they spend at school with periods of 'downtime', and they need this space psychologically, emotionally and physically. Workload, additional stress, hours spent studying in and after school come at a price and we need to put this on hold. Just as adults need regular breaks, the same is true for children.
The idea therefore of a much longer summer holiday period, against shorter holidays throughout the year is imbalanced – and outdated, particularly when you think that in this country, the idea arose from the need to have children to help out on the farms with harvesting and crop gathering!
Children learn better in shorter blocks of time, some lose motivation with a long break from school, and some underachieve as a result.
Traditionally, patterns of school holidays coincide with religious festivals in our calendar, like Christmas and Easter with half-termly breaks in between, representing about six weeks or so between these breaks. But, it is the longer summer term where the issue lies.
Firstly, we know from research in psychology into human learning, that children learn in short blocks of time – allowing information to pass into their working memory system. Chunking information hugely increases the human ability to remember, and children effectively chunk new information together so that their brains can process it. However, it then requires further rehearsal times to maintain it. If the period of time before it is maintained through rehearsal is too long, retention of information deteriorates quickly.
I often hear teachers say about a class, 'Oh, they have forgotten a lot of what they have learned over the summer', and in essence this is true. Children's short-term memories have discarded information which is not strong enough to be stored in their long-term memories because of the length of time and the fact that other new information takes its place. With a shorter period of time, less information would be lost.
Secondly, after such a long break, motivation for some children suffers; with some struggling to get back into the routines of school and returning to formal learning. This is turn can have a huge impact on children's ability to perform at school, and how much they achieve. According to American motivation guru Carol Dweck, a child who is not motivated to learn is not going to achieve in school.
The third reason why the summer holiday period is too long is more pragmatic; the cost of childcare. A survey by the Family and Childcare Trust in 2015 showed how the cost of childcare has continued to rise annually, and although costs do vary according to the age of the child, where you live and the type of care, the average for our youngest children can be around £100, or more, per week. And, the costs of sports camps, drama groups and other activities for older children are also far from cheap. This is a significant amount added to the normal family expenditure – or more burden on grandparents, friends and family members.
All of this is not a new argument. Research by the Institute for Public Policy Research in 2008 advocated a more even spread of holidays across the year and cited that some young people can spend up to 14 hours a day unsupervised during this so called 'holiday period'.
Last year, Barnsley Council cut the summer break to under five weeks and announced their 2016-7 dates with this shorter holiday period included. The David Young Community Academy in Leeds operates a seven-term year starting in June, with a summer holiday period is four weeks. Benefits to children's motivation and learning have been reported.
Summer holiday periods are discretionary, to be decided by schools themselves – and the official message is that Primary schools are required to be open for 183 days a year and 167 in Secondary school.
So, what might be done? One solution is to reframe the school year into four blocks of more equal time, rather than the existing three blocks currently. This way, each break is around three, or four, weeks maximum. The statutory number of days in school would remain the same, and holidays would be distributed more evenly over the calendar year.
Breaks are essential for us all. Children need regular breaks but the current pattern in the school calendar is imbalanced and out of date. Time to change please.
Dr Jonathan Doherty is Senior Lecturer in Primary Education at Leeds Trinity University.