Editorial: A break with the past

by Listener Archive / 20 December, 2012
Would children achieve more if their summer break was shorter, ensuring they spent more time at school?

American musician Vincent Damon Furnier – otherwise known as Alice Cooper – was once asked about the greatest three minutes of his life. He supposedly replied that there were two: “One is Christmas morning, when you’re just getting ready to open the presents. The greed factor is right there. The next one is the last three minutes of the last day of school, when you’re sitting there and it’s like a slow fuse burning.”

Many young New Zealanders (and teachers) would undoubtedly agree. Cooper managed to distil the essence of that joy in his enduring rock anthem School’s Out, better known by its catchy chorus: “School’s Out for Summer”. The anthem has particular resonance in the US, where most schools close for three months at the hottest time of the year. But the US is not the only country where there is growing debate about whether the long summer break is an unnecessary hangover from our agrarian past, when children were needed in the fields..”

Putting aside the question of whether the summer holidays should be shifted altogether in this country – it would, of course, be preferable if they coincided with summer – there is the issue of whether the long break is counterproductive to learning. Numerous studies over the years appear to show that although children from wealthy homes tend to return to school further ahead educationally than they were when they left, poorer children often slip behind. Their learning not only stalls, but also regresses over the long break, as they forget such crucial skills as how to read or do maths.

One study, by Johns Hopkins University, concluded that by the end of year nine, roughly two thirds of the learning gap between income groups could be blamed on summer learning loss. This phenomenon is so well-known it has a name: “summer slide”. New Zealand teachers have long known of its existence.

In Britain, boroughs in poorer areas have discovered that constructive school holiday programmes can provide a significant academic boost. Some educationalists argue that year-round schooling, with a much shorter summer break, is a better solution, and despite past opposition from teacher unions, some parts of the UK are considering changing to a shorter summer break. Journalist Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, supports such moves, arguing “the only problem with school, for the kids who aren’t achieving, is that there isn’t enough of it”. However, not everyone agrees. As Education Week noted, “Research that attempts to measure the influence of year-round education on student achievement is inconclusive and contradictory.”

As New Zealand’s Asian population gradually swells, perhaps we can expect more Tiger Mums to influence Kiwi culture. A generational change has already occurred and children are no longer allowed to roam free in the holidays as they once were. Yet Kiwis are sensible enough to know that putting schooling above all else can have a stifling effect.

For New Zealand’s luckiest children, summer can still generate lifelong memories of swimming, fishing, exploring and enjoying being outdoors. For many, the summer holidays can also be a time to develop new skills: to test their boundaries, gain resilience and confidence and learn how the world works. Many discover new worlds of imagination and intellect through the excellent summer reading programmes at their local libraries. These are especially important in more deprived areas and deserve our full support.

But as veteran British teacher Francis Gilbert has pointed out, instruction is never a substitute for affection. Gilbert claimed last year in the Observer that he has a reliable indicator of how a child will fare once he or she is older. After the summer holidays, he asks his pupils to write him a letter about themselves and what they got up to during the break.

He rates their life chances based simply on how happy they seem: “The happiest children speak about enjoying the supposedly mundane things in life with their families: going shopping, cooking dinner, tidying up, even! Their letters glow with love.” The fabulous three minutes Alice Cooper talked about can clearly occur at any time – all it takes is a little awareness from those Kiwis in a position to help build positive experiences and boost happy memories for New Zealand’s next generation.
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