At some point in the next few months, life will return to something approaching normality. When that happens, the UK will have to confront all the problems that Covid has left behind: bruised public finances, long NHS waiting list and the rest. But the problem that Boris Johnson is most worried about, as I write in the Times today, is the effect on children of having been out of school for so long. This pandemic has probably wiped out a decade of progress in narrowing the attainment gap.
The government is hoping that small group tutoring can help make up much of the lost learning; it looks like the school day will be extended as part of this. But the whole structure of education needs to be looked at to give children from deprived backgrounds the best chance of succeeding. The long summer holidays are one of the factors behind the attainment gap. Work suggests that it takes teachers up to six weeks to get pupils back to where they were before school broke up.
Long school summer holidays are a feature of British national life: so much of our children’s literature, so many of our memories, revolve around them. But it is hard to see how they can be justified now. We are no longer an agrarian society. A shorter break in summer would make it less likely that those from deprived backgrounds would slide backwards over the holidays.
A five terms system would see the summer holidays go from being six weeks to four, with two-week breaks in October, December, March and May and no half-terms. There would undoubtedly be resistance from the education sector, and some families, to this change.
It would require every teacher’s contracts to be renegotiated and it is nigh on impossible to imagine the teaching unions giving up the perk of a long summer break without a significant pay rise. As Aneurin Bevan said of winning doctors over to the new NHS, mouths would have to be stuffed with gold.