Summer sun can be harmful in more ways than one

It appears the break is helping to widen the attainment gap between rich and poor

John Greenlees

Numerous research projects have established that there is a clear learning loss during our long summer vacation. Compelling evidence, from researchers in Britain and abroad, concludes that a long break from lessons is detrimental to pupils' learning, particularly for those from lower-income families.

One study shows that while the attainment levels of children from wealthier families remain constant or might actually improve during the summer, those of the majority of children regress. In the case of children from poorer families, the regression is quite significant. The long summer break, it is clear, is helping to widen the already-too-wide attainment gap between rich and poor.

While children from wealthier families take part in overseas travel and trips to museums, science centres and other stimulating places, children from lower-income families are more likely to have a vacation timetable dominated by watching TV and playing computer games. It is not uncommon for some pupils never to open a book during the entire summer.

Some schools have started to develop strategies to try to reduce this "summer slide" in learning by lending books, setting assignments and encouraging pupils to attempt summer online learning challenges. More importantly, parents are being advised about how to help sustain their children's learning during the summer break through reading, talking and writing.

Kirsty, my nine-year-old niece, has been creating a scrapbook as part of a summer project set by her school. Every pupil was asked to choose a topic for a scrapbook assignment that involves reading, watching, thinking, writing, sketching and arranging. Kirsty's scrapbook is about owls and is one of her finest pieces of schoolwork.

The school provided guidance notes for parents that explained what the project involved, why it was being set and what they could do to help. There was no compulsion, although pupils who complete the assignment will receive a certificate.

Such open-ended assignments are easy to set and mark, but too many schools don't do anything to promote learning during the long summer break which, for some authorities, stretches to eight weeks.

Some say we should tackle the learning slide by restructuring the school year to create shorter breaks from lessons. Our long summer holiday, this view maintains, is an outdated legacy from an agrarian society when children were required to help busy farmers.

I disagree and believe that the problem of learning slides is more easily tackled by schools setting simple summer assignments, like Kirsty's scrapbook project. Most pupils enjoy project work and benefit from it. John Greenlees, Secondary teacher.

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John Greenlees

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