'The summer holidays are not a perk, but a prerequisite for peak performance'

A teacher's holiday allowance may look generous, but it doesn’t level out the workload playing field, says one leading educator

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It’s mid-July and the summer holiday beckons. Teachers are steeling themselves for the litany from neighbours, friends and family, on how lovely it must be to have the whole summer off, and so soon since the Easter break. To be sure, the summer is a great time to be a teacher.

The reality is that much of the "close season" is taken up with expeditions, administration and the breathing space to develop the new schemes of work required by changes to GCSE and A level.

Add to that the genuine need for rest and recuperation. The crescendo of demands on teachers reaches a climax at the very end of each term. And teachers are among the professions most prone to "leisure sickness" – falling ill when the pressure abates, their bodies dropping the guard they’ve maintained for weeks against the assault of ailments.

Conscientious teachers work flat-out during term time. The Department for Education’s own survey  – completed in 2010 but currently being updated – shows that during term time, secondary school teachers spend around 55 hours a week working, and primary school teachers spend longer still. Calculations by an HR consultancy suggest that teachers work an extra 585 hours during term time than a "private sector" worker, but only receive 280 hours extra back in holiday.

The holiday allowance looks generous, but it doesn’t completely level out the workload playing field. Nevertheless, do teachers really need such a long summer break? Wouldn’t a pattern of five terms and a four-week summer break be less stressful and more productive, both for teachers and students? After all, the extra-long summer recess has its roots in the mists of agricultural cycles, when children were needed in the fields.

'The summer slide'

Long summer holidays are a problem for parents, many of whom have shorter holidays, making their childcare arrangements complicated and expensive. And there is concern about the impact on children who don’t have access to continued learning experiences during the summer months.

The educational impact of such a hiatus is a matter of debate. The USA has a 10-11 week summer recess; in Finland, the same length of holiday coexists happily with world-leading test scores. A National Foundation for Educational Research report in 2004 found no strong evidence that changing the school calendar in itself raises student achievement or teacher wellbeing. Recent research suggests that the "summer slide" can be addressed through well-focused and imaginative initiatives aimed at promoting "summer learning", rather than simply piling on more seat-time in school.

This much we do know: teachers need time to rest, recharge, review and research. It’s not a perk, it’s a prerequisite for peak performance. Meanwhile, for teachers contemplating the release of exam results in August, and the need to prepare for new programmes in September, “summer's lease hath all too short a date”.

Dr Kevin Stannard is the director of innovation and learning at the Girls' Day School Trust. He tweets as @KevinStannard1

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