Britain's school summer holidays are too short - here's why they need to be longer

Rosie Murray-West
Children enjoy the hot weather on Camber Sands beach in Sussex  - Christopher Pledger

Britain has the shortest summer holidays in the developed world, prizing childcare over education, and this is damaging to children. 

It is mid July, and Britain’s schools are reaching the end of a very long tether. Between sports days, music concerts and prize-givings, it’s hard to fit in an ounce of education, or even remember a packed lunch in the morning. With our children hot and stressed and their teachers even more bothered, most involved tend to agree that the holidays can’t come soon enough.

Where parents and teachers tend to divide, though, is on how long the summer break should be. 

While parents will spend August scrabbling around for expensive childcare, or frantically rearranging their working days to look after their cherubs, teachers will be relaxing in the sun with a Piña Colada, or working very hard to prepare next year’s lessons - depending on which side of the narrative you find more credible. 

In a world where most families have two working parents who can’t take the whole summer off and teachers are under unprecedented amounts of stress, it is hard to find consensus over the most advantageous length for a summer break. 

But by focusing on the purpose of education, despite my own dread at organising six weeks of wholesome childcare, I’ve come to the unfashionable point of view that the school summer holiday is simply not long enough.

Ours are the shortest

For a start, the six-week sunlit uplands that my daughters are straining towards at the moment look pathetic compared to what their compatriots enjoy elsewhere. Belgian, French and Norwegian children will have nine weeks off this year, and Canadian children 10. American children go to summer camp for 12 weeks (and have a lot of unauthorised fun there if the films are to be believed) while the much-admired Finns take an 11-week break. It appears there is no correlation between the ranking of the world’s education systems and how long the children spend away from school in the summer. 

And what about UK independent schools?

Even if you don’t want to look overseas, the seven per cent of children in Britain who are independently educated also get longer out of the classroom. If a nine-week summer holiday was good enough for the old Etonians who stuff the UK government, I reckon it is also good enough for my daughters. After all, parents who can afford to vote with their wallets would the first to complain about a long summer break if it put their children at a disadvantage.

Time away from school is actually… good

Scientific studies back up the benefits of the summer holiday. A paper published in Public Health in 2017 looked at the “summer slide”, which isn’t a trip to a waterpark that your children have been begging for all term, but the suggestion that your children forget everything over the holidays. It concluded that although children enter the classroom in September with worse spelling than they’d had in August, they’d regained the ground and more besides, within a four-week period. 

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Everyone needs a rest, today’s over-examined children more than most, particularly when they’re faced with a narrow curriculum based on English and maths which means that many confine their passions for art, music, sport or drama to the specialist clubs available in the summer holidays.

The cost advantages of a bulk holiday

Given all this, why have some schools in Britain cut the summer holidays to four weeks, with parental blessing? Well, there’s the childcare cost - an average of £133 a week in the holidays, according to the family charity Coram

The charity points out that childcare in the holidays is almost two and a half times as expensive as in term time. Ouch. But it’s not like cutting the summer holidays would make this childcare need go away. Cutting the summer break and adding the days on elsewhere merely creates a problem for parents who need to find childcare at a time when the August summer clubs are not available. £133 a week for a summer holiday club, versus £250 to £500 for a nanny when there’s no club makes this decision look very expensive, indeed. 

Summer is time to hone skills in sports and arts, which are often neglected during the academic year

Protecting children

That leaves one very big argument for shorter summers, which has nothing to do with our schools as educators and everything to do with their other function; a safety net for the vulnerable. For those who go hungry without free school meals, or live in chaotic circumstances, the school term is a haven and the holidays can be hell. These children deserve protection over a long summer break, but I’m beginning to wonder whether it should be a school providing it, or whether, as in Finland, where meals are available at municipal playgrounds throughout the holidays, there is a better way. Institutionalising children is one option, but I think we should be more ambitious than that.

Protecting teachers

This July, our state schools are at breaking point. They can’t retain their teachers, and their premises are riddled with asbestos and other nasties that can’t be dealt with while the children are in school. When your children leave, a different programme of work begins, intense maintenance and cleaning, or hiring out of the premises so that our underfunded schools can claw back some resources. 

As a governor sitting the finance committee of my younger daughter’s crumbling Victoria primary (yes, we have asbestos), I know exactly how much this break is needed.

And it isn’t just the schools and the teachers. Our children are at breaking point too, with a mental health crisis that’s hard to ignore, and no time left in the curriculum to focus on their passions, their talents or even their wellbeing. It’s been a long hard year. Give everyone a proper break.

What do you think? Should British schools have longer summer holidays? Or are you struggling to find childcare this summer? Let us know in the comments below.