Ryan Shorthouse

Kids will thank us for shortening the school summer holidays

Kids will thank us for shortening the school summer holidays
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Oh for a normal summer – so close now, but Covid remains capricious, a wave across Europe threatening to wash it all away. But just think: for some schoolchildren, and their parents, the normality of the long six-week summer break may not be such an appealing prospect.

Sure, the middle-classes are able to pack it with enriching activities – exciting new skills, friendships and memories. But, for kids in families with stretched budgets, it can be isolating, impoverishing, boring. And, as quite a substantial body of evidence now shows, very bad for their emotional and cognitive development – some studies even conclude that the majority of the attainment gap between rich and poor children can be explained by the cumulative impact of successive summer breaks.

After a year of spending so little time in school, with the structure, socialisation and stimulation it brings, we really need to rethink urgently whether children, especially those from less privileged homes, would benefit from spending the usual extended period of time away from it over the summer.

The learning loss from Covid is highly likely to be profound, especially for students from lower income backgrounds. Evidence flagged by a British Academy report this week on previous examples of educational absence, including teachers strikes and natural disasters, confirms this. Teachers have been doing a heroic job during the pandemic, continuing to teach the full curriculum through both classroom and remote teaching. But the brutal truth is that many children just won’t have absorbed it.

Work from both the LSE and the IFS has shown that, during the first lockdown of 2020, children from higher-income backgrounds were much more likely to have the equipment for and the experience of a full (albeit virtual) school day. Worryingly, up to quarter of pupils received no schooling or tutoring at all during this period. The Department for Education found that although vulnerable children were still able and expected to attend school in-person during the first lockdown, only between five per cent and 14 per cent of children did so, although there are indications that this is likely to have increased in this year’s lockdown, happily.

Evidence from the National Foundation for Educational Research found that a startling 98 per cent of teachers considered their pupils were behind where they would normally expect them to be at the end of the last academic year, by three months on average.

The data is plentiful and alarming. The respected Education Endowment Foundation forecasts that the attainment gap between pupils on free school meals and not will increase by 36 per cent due to Covid, reversing all the progress in closing it since the start of the last decade.

Much attention has focused on the turmoil faced by those teenagers who have had their GCSE and A-level exams cancelled and replaced by an alternative assessment system which few have confidence in. But the much more worrying educational problem, affecting all cohorts, is the loss of actual learning. Skill formation, as the economist Professor James Heckman has shown, is complementary: learning begets learning. Covid learning loss will likely profoundly hamper educational attainment – and thus individual life outcomes and national prosperity – over the long-term.

One-to-one or small-group catch-up tutoring for affected pupils has been offered as the main solution to mitigate this so far, with the Government launching the National Tutoring Programme last summer. It is true that such tutoring, when focussed on the curriculum, is one of the best interventions to support those struggling. But there are two big problems with relying on this alone.

The first is identifying those pupils who need such support. There are both financial and practical limits to how many young people could benefit from such tutoring. Indeed, one part of the National Tutoring Programme is the academic mentors scheme led by Teach First; at the start of this year, it had placed 1,100 mentors in schools, despite receiving requests from 1,789 schools. The learning loss among Covid schoolchildren is likely to be broad and deep, meaning many pupils who need the tutoring will miss out.

The second issue is reaching the most disadvantaged pupils. The National Tutoring Programme is designed to help them, but schools have the discretion to identify who would benefit most. Another part of the National Tutoring Programme is the tuition partners scheme. Of those receiving tuition through the scheme, only 44 per cent are on free school meals. It was estimated that up to quarter of a million kids overall would access this specific scheme, but the National Audit Office reports that only half of this actually have, as of last month. The most deprived children are not benefitting from this support in the numbers we need.

Considering that catch-up tutoring is missing many children suffering severe learning loss – especially but not exclusively the most deprived – the Education Secretary and education sector need to be more radical. We know compulsory schooling is the most effective and efficient way of educating children. So we need all children to spend more time in them, both gaining and solidifying knowledge they should have developed in this very unusual year. School summer holidays should be significantly shortened by three weeks.

Give the kids a break, I hear you cry. But being at school should not be, indeed is not, drudgery. As the Children’s Society work tracking children’s wellbeing demonstrates, the overwhelming majority of 10- to 15-year-olds in the UK report being happy at school and when doing schoolwork, although admittedly that has dropped a little in recent years.

This, of course, is a big ask for teachers. But even if they worked these additional weeks, it would still mean they have more annual holiday than most other workers. However, it would change the terms of their current contract, disrupting summer holiday plans after a year of them working hard in dreadfully difficult circumstances.

The Treasury, quite rightly, has had to spend substantial sums to support the economy during the health crisis. But the evidence points to an education crisis too. The Government should dig deep into its pockets again and compensate teachers above and beyond their usual hours for this additional work.

Let’s be creative out of Covid: end the long summer school holidays, for good.