As Wales’ new Education Minister Lynne Neagle starts her brief one of the matters in her inbox will be proposals to change the school year dates and cut short the six week summer holidays. Results of a public consultation on that are due soon but the changes, which include a five or four week summer break, are opposed by all education unions in Wales who wrote a joint letter to her predecessor Jeremy Miles saying so,

More than 4,000 people have signed a petition calling on the Welsh Government to halt its proposals to change the school year dates. But some local authorities in England have already cut their summer holidays, to good effect they say, and others are being urged to follow suit,

Social mobility professor Lee Elliot Major is among those who believe a shorter summer holiday and having terms of more even lengths - taking the weeks at other times - would be better for children and school staff. He says the traditional long summer break had nothing to do with the harvest and was actually demanded by wealthy classes who wanted longer holidays for their children. You can read more about why teachers are opposed to the plans for shorter summer holidays here

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Here Lee Elliott Major, Professor of social mobility at Exeter University, explains why he thinks the Welsh Government proposal for a four or five, rather than six week, summer holiday is a good idea:

In the harsh realities of the post pandemic era, it’s time to reassess whether our longest standing traditions in education could be changed to serve us better. Among these, the school calendar, largely unchanged since the Victorian era, warrants a review.

Many believe that our long summer break came from the need for children to help farmers with the harvest in centuries gone by. But the practice is more likely to originate from the extended summer holidays required by the Victorian professional classes.

Like so much else, reluctance to reform our unbalanced school calendar is preserving the preferences of a privileged few from a bygone era. The idea of spreading school holidays more evenly across the year is first and foremost about improving the working lives of teachers.

The infamously long and arduous autumn term, with its relentless push towards Christmas, is notoriously draining for both teachers and pupils. A two week respite replacing the current week break in October would enable time poor teachers to reset, reinvigorating them for the rest of the year.

Indeed, semesters of almost equal length across the academic year would make for better curriculum planning throughout. After summer exams, teachers could dedicate time to extra-curricular activities – the sports, music and artwork that often fall by the wayside in the current system.

Moreover, the long summer break, often romanticized as a time of carefree play and sunshine, is in truth an exceptionally difficult and stressful period for many families. Studies show that children from under-resourced backgrounds can be put at risk through malnourishment, isolation, and extended periods of inactivity.

School calendar proposals and when a decision will be announced

  • Two options were put out for consultation by the Welsh Government - to cut the summer holidays to five weeks and possibly to four.
  • The Welsh Government is proposing to take one week off the start of the summer holidays and adding it to the October half term break.
  • These changes would be made from September 2025, meaning schools would get a two week break in October 2025 half term and a five week, rather than six week summer holiday in 2026.
  • The consultation also looked at additional changes proposed for after 2025. These include cutting the summer holidays to just four weeks by moving a second week from the summer break and adding it to the Whitsun holiday.

  • A report on the consultation findings along with a decision is due later in the spring, the Welsh Government has said.

Families face many challenges, including lack of affordable child care and “holiday hunger”. These hardships were brought to the fore by Marcus Rashford’s campaign to extend free school meals for children in England during the summer of 2020 summer. What it clear is that rose-tinted memories of idyllic long summer breaks don’t live up the modern reality for many children and adults.

More studies are needed in the UK to determine the possible academic learning loss suffered by today’s pupils over the summer break. The strongest evidence from other countries, for example the United States, suggests children from poorer backgrounds are most likely to suffer summer learning slide.

It’s often safeguarding worries that play on the minds of teachers who are acutely aware that abuse, neglect, and mental health do not take a break over the holidays. One recent study in the UK found that mental health had worsened for seven to 14 year-olds when they returned to school after the long summer break.

Shortening the summer holidays would have the benefit of spreading out the logistics and costs of child care and holidays across the year for many parents. It would help parents who work during the summer in the holiday or catering industries.

Studies have shown that many parents are unable to work hindering attempts to move out of poverty. Staggering shorter summer holidays across different regions moreover could even reduce holiday costs for parents.

Increasing numbers of schools and local authorities in England already reforming their academic calendars, some introducing a two week autumn half term break to incorporate all staff training over one week instead of separate days across the year. In Belgium meanwhile reforms have been introduced following concerns that children were becoming too tired during excessively long school terms.

Some schools there have established a new pattern of seven week terms followed by two weeks of vacation, repeated throughout the year, while shortening the summer break. Calendar changes proposed by the Welsh Government in their consultation include cutting summer holidays by a week and introducing a two week autumn half term and keeping the spring break at a constant midpoint and separating it from Easter holidays.

Under these changes, teachers and pupils would still enjoy the same number of days of school holidays. Small changes to the school calendar would be a zero cost reform that would be popular with parents with the potential to improve the working lives of teachers and the education of their pupils.

At the very least, we should trial a rebalanced school calendar in some areas to generate evidence on its potential benefits.

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