August 16, 2018

Summer days, drifting away

School summer holidays should be shorter. Excessively long breaks are bad for children and for social mobility.

YOU return from work on a muggy August evening. Your unwashed teenage son is on the sofa playing Fortnite, as he has been doing for the past eight hours. Your daughter, scrolling through Instagram, acknowledges your presence with a surly grunt. Not for the first time, you ask yourself: why are school summer holidays so insufferably long?

This is a more serious question than it sounds (see article). Many children will return from the long break having forgotten much of what they were taught the previous year. One study from the American South found that this “summer learning loss” could be as high as a quarter of the year’s education. Poor children tend to be the worst affected, since rich ones typically live in homes full of books and are packed off to summer camp to learn robotics, Latin or the flute. A study from Baltimore found that variations in summer loss might possibly account for two-thirds of the achievement gap between rich and poor children by the age of 14-15. Long holidays definitely strain the budgets of poor families, since free school meals stop and extra child care kicks in.

Summer holidays vary greatly from country to country. South Korean children get only three weeks off. Children in Italy and Turkey get a whopping three months. So do those in America, where their parents, unless they are teachers, have an average of only three weeks off a year, among the shortest holidays in the rich world. Companies should let them take a bit more, since burnt-out workers are less productive. But, for their children, six weeks out of class is plenty.

Youngsters will hate the idea of a longer school year. Many grown-ups will object to it, too. It would cost taxpayers more, since teachers would have to be paid for the extra days. Schools in hotter areas would spend a fortune on air-conditioning. Sceptics also note that, although those barely rested South Korean pupils do superbly in exams, they are often miserable. Is that really what you want for your darlings?

We got no class, we got no principles

It would be unwise to import South Korea’s pressure-cooker approach, in which a single exam determines every child’s future. But plenty of Western children could usefully spend a bit longer at their books. Yes, it would cost money, but there are ways to pay for it. One is to have larger classes. Many parents are obsessed with teacher-to-pupil ratios, but there is scant evidence that they make much difference. The average Japanese lower-secondary class is more than 50% larger than the average British one, but Japanese children get better results.

More time in school need not mean repeating the same old lessons. Some extra drilling would be beneficial, particularly for those falling behind. But the summer could also be a time for different kinds of learning: critical thinking, practical skills, financial literacy, work placements with local firms—schools should be free to experiment. Space should not be a problem. Many school buildings sit idle in the summer.

Well-off children often already use the summer to broaden their minds and burnish their college applications at pricey camps or doing summer jobs found through connections. Schools should help the rest catch up. Other public services do not simply vanish for a quarter of the year. It would be unthinkable for hospitals or the police to do so. So why do schools get away with it? Their responsibility to educate does not end when the mercury rises.