Half my inbox in the run-up to school holidays reads: “Can I get back to you on that in a few weeks? I’m in a mad rush to get things done before the kids are off on Monday!” Followed by a chain of sympathetic responses agreeing we’re all in the same, soggy boat.
School holidays are a nightmare for parents. We get, on average, 28 days of annual leave, but our children get 91. Those numbers don’t add up and as a result the run up to Easter has been a familiar mix of panic, overwork, trying to find money for childcare and begging for help from grandparents.
That’s our lot in life as parents, though, right? If school holidays are good for our kids, we just have to suck it up. But are they actually good for our kids? Are these big chunks of time off truly good for anyone? To know whether the current approach to school holidays is best, we need first to answer: what are school holidays for?
One theory suggests school holidays began because children were needed to work in the fields during the summer. The world “holiday” originates from “holy day”, and most breaks from school and work were originally for religious festivals, so another theory is the long summer holiday was an opportunity for pilgrimage. Christmas and Easter holidays owe their existence to Christian observances, but today less than half of British people consider themselves Christian. We certainly don’t need children doing manual labour. So maybe it’s time for a rethink.
If the point of holidays is rest, studies show frequent mini-breaks make us happier than isolated long trips, because we have more to look forward to, and consistent refreshment. Long breaks don’t prevent exhaustion – you can’t store up rest. We need regular short breaks to unwind and recharge. Forcing children to work for extended periods of time then pack all their rest into large chunks may actually be harming them, physically and mentally.
My young daughter starts every term feeling anxious about going into school, growing comfortable and confident just as the next long holiday starts – after which she’s anxious and unsettled again. For older children, large periods of time off school are big interruptions from learning. Then they’re supposed to remember everything they were taught, and then totally set aside, weeks ago. We’re not providing the regular breaks their brains need to retain that information – we’re overstraining their brains and their nervous systems, and then putting them under pressure to bounce straight back. Researchers at the University of Glasgow found that long summer holidays exacerbated inequalities, negatively impacted mental health and held back children’s progress.
School holidays clearly aren’t meeting their purpose, so what should we do instead? We could offer shorter, more frequent set breaks across the year, which would be easier on the school admin. Or we could do something incredibly radical – we could treat children like grown-ups. We could allow them to take their days off at a time that works for them, and their families.
If schools were operating all year round, then there would be plenty of space for revisiting topics. Anyone who’d been on holiday, or unwell, could catch up, and everyone would get a valuable chance to reinforce their learning. There could be more activity clubs and wraparound care offered to children whose parents can’t drop everything for 91 days a year, and parents might get more support from employers to manage those shorter breaks. We could bring children’s schedules into harmony with their parents’, instead of forcing conflict. Some schools in the US have tried a year-round calendar, and results show that those students are years ahead of their peers.
Teachers need time off too, of course. Not to mention time for lesson planning. We desperately need more investment into the school system to provide more, better paid, staff who can share the load and cover time off. Teachers would benefit from more spread-out breaks, for the same reasons children would. We have substitute teachers now, because teachers get sick. They might get sick a lot less often if they had more frequent periods of quality rest. In fact, we all might be a lot healthier and happier, plus our children would learn better. That seems to add up much more effectively.
Allegra Chapman is a diversity and inclusion consultant