Jonathan Gullis is MP for Stoke-on-Trent North, and a member of the Education Select Committee. He was previously a secondary school teacher.
The Government has rightly decided to extend free school meals for the holidays, and give hard-pressed families reassurance that their kids will be fed this winter. But at a time when many kids are falling behind due to the pandemic and many families are struggling, we should go further.
It is time to cut school holidays, to give disadvantaged students time to catch up with their peers after long gaps in learning due to covid and to further ease the pressure on family finances. We could cut two weeks from the long summer break, and even shave a few days off at Christmas and Easter, to help children reclaim their futures.
As a former teacher, I know the problems that long holidays create for poorer families. Holiday learning loss contributes to widening attainment gaps between economically advantaged and disadvantaged students. Evidence gathered during the lockdown in April shows that pupils were doing on average two and a half hours of school work per day.
When broken down based on eligibility for free school meals a shocking gap can be observed. Around a quarter of pupils eligible for free school meals spent on average no time or under an hour on schooling compared with 18 per cent of those students not eligible.
The same survey found that roughly a fifth of free school meal pupils had no access to a computer at home, compared to seven per cent for other students. Another survey found that some pupils could return to school having made only 70 per cent progress compared to a normal year in reading and only 50 per cent in maths.
Another factor contributing to the attainment gap is the home environment, and specifically the involvement (or lack of) parents in a child’s educational development. Disadvantaged parents are less likely to support children because they may be in work, or lack the money to pay for tutoring, learning software or homework clubs.
These combined factors contribute to disadvantaged children falling behind their peers during long holiday breaks. Studies have found that only after seven weeks of teaching in the autumn do some children exceed the level of education they achieved prior to the summer.
And that’s before the impact on family finances. The average cost of holiday childcare in the UK is £133 per week. Between 2003 and 2015, nursery costs increased by 77 per cent while earnings have remained roughly the same. It is estimated that the loss of free school meals adds between £30 and £40 per week to parents’ outgoings during school holidays.
There is also evidence that long school holidays cause an increase in child poverty. Evidence from charities suggests that food bank use accelerates significantly among families during the long summer holidays as they struggle to feed their children every day. Every year, three million children are at risk of going hungry over the summer period every year.
Long periods out of school also have a knock on effect on children’s physical health. Evidence shows that children from more disadvantaged backgrounds suffered a greater loss of fitness following the summer holidays. The poorest quarter of kids see a drop in their fitness levels 18 times greater than the wealthiest 25 per cent over the summer.
There is wide variation the length of school holidays around the world. In some parts of Asia, including high performing countries like South Korea and Japan, students are only on summer holiday for four weeks, whereas in Italy and Portugal pupils are typically out of school for up to 13 weeks.
A number of academics have made the case for shorter summer holidays, including Professor Tina Hascher of the University of Bern, who has argued that four weeks of summer holiday should be enough to ensure pupils, teachers and parents are able to enjoy a degree of respite whilst mitigating the effects of the summer slide in learning.
When I was a teacher, I recognised the value of the summer break. It is an important time for students to rest and recover after a long academic year. But, I also know from experience the difficulty some students face when they start the year in September after a long summer of losing academic ground.
Lockdown has taught us the difficulties that come with long stints away from the classroom, with learning suffering, health suffering, families struggling financially and a widening attainment gap between well off and disadvantaged students.
This is why I am proposing that the Government introduce a shorter summer break of four weeks from Summer 2021, and consider reducing other holidays, including the upcoming Christmas break. These new weeks of learning should be used for structured activities and education in the term-time either side.
We cannot change the past. The time that has been lost has been lost. But we can make up for that lost time. Reducing the length of school holidays will help close this attainment gap, while reducing the burden on working families.