How to avoid summer learning loss

Pupils' loss of knowledge over the summer holidays can be a problem – but online tutorials help, says Garry Russon

Garry Russon

Why teachers need their long summer holidays

By the time the summer holidays arrive, staff and students are ready for a well-deserved opportunity to relax and recharge. However, this six-week period away from the classroom can have an unintended impact on children when they return in September.

A traditional part of prepping for the autumn term is preparing refresher lessons. This is down to summer learning loss – a phenomenon that causes children to lose subject knowledge and understanding throughout the holidays.

For some students, the impact might be relatively small, but for others it can be the equivalent of losing as much as two full months of learning in maths or English, according to a report by the US-based National Center on Afterschool and Summer Enrichment.

Pupils losing knowledge

As worrying as this is for schools already, even more concerning is the fact that academic research finds that disadvantaged students are significantly more likely to lose knowledge over the summer, regardless of how well they were performing the previous term.

In my five years as assistant headteacher for achievement at Harlington Upper School in Bedfordshire, much of my focus has been on trying to solve problems like this, particularly when it comes to ensuring that students from all backgrounds are given the same opportunities to succeed. And I’m proud to say that we have had some real success in making this happen, by cultivating a mentality that we call “Keep up, not catch up”.

Our previous initiatives have had the advantage of taking place during term-time, something that any summer learning loss project could not.

This posed a particular challenge for us. As a school, we were clear on the impact summer learning loss was having on students, and we were also aware of research showing that just an hour or two of work per week over the summer holidays could have a significant impact. However, staff wellbeing is a top-tier consideration for us, too, so any new programme would need not to burden our teaching staff with additional summer workload.

Online tutorials

With this in mind, we chose to look outside the school for resources that could provide these educational nudges to our disadvantaged (DA) students over the holidays. In summer 2018, we ran our first summer tutoring project using the MyTutor platform, which provided all DA students with the opportunity to access weekly online tutorials in maths, a priority subject for us.

For our pilot year, we decided to go with a light-touch approach, offering the tutorials on a voluntary sign-up basis for DA students. We weren’t expecting a huge amount of interest from students for additional summer maths lessons, so the interest and uptake surprised us.

Ultimately, 15 per cent of the students who were offered tutorials signed up and completed all six lessons included in the programme. The positive feedback from the project was particularly welcome, especially from parents, who are ultimately the bedrock of any successful summer programme. The fact that the tutorials were online was also a benefit, as all the work could be done from a kitchen table or bedroom.

Raising attainment

One of my greatest sources of pride is how well we as a school have raised attainment among our disadvantaged students. In just five years, we have moved from being in the bottom 10 per cent of schools for performance among pupil-premium students into our position today in the top 25 per cent.

Looking ahead to summer 2019, we are expanding our summer-tutoring project to a wider group of students, to gain an even broader understanding of its impact. With increased uptake, we’re hoping to see an even better outcome for September. And, if it’s also able to kickstart a lifelong love of learning, so much the better.

Garry Russon is an assistant headteacher (achievement) at Harlington Upper School in Bedfordshire

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