Forward into summer - and backwards with learning

It’s like one of those GCSE maths questions that attract publicity for their complexity.

Sophie and Alex go to school together. Sports day and school trips take up most of the last three weeks of their summer term. Sophie spends her summer watching tv, playing on the wii and on a Costa beach holiday with her family. Alex has similar plans but also belongs to a club where he enjoys solving maths puzzles and putting together his ideas for a story he is writing to enter one of their competitions. The school holidays are six weeks long and it takes two weeks to settle back at school in September.

Who will do better in the autumn term? By how many weeks will they be ahead?

Obviously there is no “right” answer but a well-reasoned response would probably conclude that Alex would do better. His suggested gain over Sophie would probably be at least two months.

Parents throughout the country are currently making their decisions about what the summer holds for their children – and teachers are despairing as they plan their work for September, in the knowledge that most children will be playing catch up from day one.

Summer learning loss has been a source of concern, and heavily researched, for many years. The key findings, which have shown little change over the last decade are that:

  • Students lose, on average, between one and three months’ learning over the summer holiday, with a four month loss not being unusual.
  • Summer learning loss is greatest in maths.
  • Calculation and spelling are the skills most affected.
  • Learning rooted in reasoning by the individual is least vulnerable.
  • The disparity between abilities increases over the holidays – the greater the challenge that a child usually faces, the greater will be their fall back.

Read more here

The whole issue is one that concerns most school leaders, particularly in primary schools. A survey late last summer revealed that 77% were worried about summer learning loss. Discussions about changing our pattern of school terms, to improve matters, have gone on for years, but it is clear that there is not the will to alter things. Even where private schools and academies could have opted for more evenly spread terms and holidays, this simply has not happened.

From this September, head teachers will have the authority to set their school’s holiday dates instead of being bound by the current centrally administered system. Hopes that this might help break the cycle of premium charges for holidays have been freely expressed. Sadly, though, there is the problem that unless schools have the same dates then families with children at different schools may just find their problems compounded. It seems unlikely that there will be much change at all.

Other countries have even longer summer holidays than we do in the UK with countries such as Italy, Turkey and the US all closing their schools for 13 weeks. The US response, in terms of sending kids away to summer camps, is well known and we have seen some organisations that offer versions creeping in to this country too. They keep children busy but are pricey and do not address the issue of academic fall back.

This summer, MagiKats is offering both subjects as 6-8 week summer programmes, which finish with two “sharpen-up” weeks when there is a quick reminder of skills needed for the new term. In addition, many centres are offering 'taster sessions' so children and teenagers can try a workshop before parents have to commit (see if your local centre is offering taster sessions here).

Maths students will be concentrating on problems and puzzles that build not only their calculation skills but also their ability to work out school word problems.

English students will be writing a work of fiction! They will write their work up as books and will submit them as competition entries.

All students who work on either subject during the summer, even if they do so on that Costa beach, will be eligible for a prize.

Their biggest rewards, however, will come when they return to school and have moved forward with their learning whilst their peers have slipped back. Theirs will be that two month gain!

As a teacher and a mum, I spent stupid amounts of time and money every summer trying to engage my children in activities to keep their brains working so we avoided the summer fall back (see what my daughter has to say on the subject here). At least I had school summer holidays too. For the working parent it must feel like a step too far or a huge burden to be borne. If I had been in their position then I would have certainly looked for some programme that would remove the work load from me. After all, it is the summer and I want to enjoy it too.

I would have welcomed anything that reduced the problem of the summer holidays. That it gave my kids the edge at school in September would have been a welcome bonus.

By Jan Lomas, Curriculum Director at MagiKats HQ, Principal and MagiKats Farnham and mum of two!