Secret Teacher: Maybe the school holidays are too long

Some of the most vulnerable secondary students would certainly benefit from creative summer group work
Secret Teacher: Maybe the school holidays are too long

What if we’d summer programmes during state exams, to engage students, whilst giving breathing room, actual time, for teachers to plan and collaborate? Picture: Ben Birchall

Sometimes, unpopular decisions have to be made for the greater good. I imagine the decision to delay pub openings didn’t come easily but as a teacher, hoping to get back to work, I’m grateful for it.

It makes me think of another, potentially difficult decision I’m not sure we’ll ever make — that of cutting secondary school holidays. On a personal level, such a decision would devastate me. They’re amazing, and come the end of May, they certainly feel deserved.

But on a professional level, I’m not convinced they work for everyone.

I know this is contentious, but I think secondary school summer holidays are four weeks too long. It gets me out of the swing of things and I find September terrifying, each year. I experience a mini-version of this terror every Monday during the year, when students descend on us after their weekends, a little more unruly, a little less engaged.

But the first of September is a gazillion times worse. I soft-step into the classroom, unnerved, a little fatter, clutching my brand new teacher journal, the work of the previous year buried deep. Names escape me. I over-think them, stumble through my hellos. 

My attempts to reference learning that happened three months ago are soul-destroying — my sense of worth and efficacy joining the accumulating scraps of paper in the classroom bin.

Could it be easier?

I wonder what it would be like to stay in school throughout June. What if we’d summer programmes during state exams, to engage students, whilst giving breathing room, actual time, for teachers to plan and collaborate? Maybe we could open the school up to parent volunteers? Maybe with a few designated planning weeks school might be less intense and stressful for the rest of the year.

Surely, students would benefit twice over, from such creative summer group work and from coordinated advanced planning?

Certain students would benefit far more than others — our most vulnerable. A favourite writer of mine, Malcolm Gladwell, argues in his book Outliers that “America doesn’t have a school problem … it has a summer vacation problem.” This is based on robust research linking longer school holidays to a negative impact on the learning of America’s poorest students. Here, social inequality is why we have HEAR (Higher Education Access Routes); it’s why the government heavily funds Deis schools. We’re closing that gap in Ireland; we’re getting there.

But maybe we’re missing the obvious by never discussing how long these children spend away from education in secondary school. And it’s unusual; we’ve one of the longest holiday periods in the OECD.

Because while some families chat about books they’re reading, other families do not. My five-year-old uses words like ‘literally’ and ‘specifically’. I’m quite lazy about reading to her and far too often the books I buy act as ornaments; sincere little blocks of intention lining my walls. Still, I read to her on occasion. She’s comically uninterested in phonics — but she’s growing up with teachers. So she speaks the language of teachers. It helps.

But a lot of students don’t, and three months of summer sets them behind their peers academically. And teachers spend the rest of the year trying to help them catch up. Their parents can’t afford to travel and they can’t afford expensive summer camps. The infamous ‘summer slide’ is more intense for them because come September, they’re having to switch back to a different language again. 

These kids are not less capable. They are not less good. Their parents are equally not less capable and not less good. But they’re disadvantaged when it comes to education and earning power.

Maybe we could have reduced numbers in June? We could narrow the gap for young people who need extra support? Maybe reduced hours? Maybe we pay teachers more? Because let’s be clear, lockdown will have affected some kids far more than others. We’re going to have our work cut out for us in September, Covid-19 restrictions aside. Lockdown reminded everyone how different homes can be. Some are disadvantaged, that’s one thing, but others are abusive. We all heard about the spike in calls to Childline. Certain kids know this intrinsically; they live it every summer, every weekend. For these kids, school means safety.

The teachers’ unions in Ireland have done great work in not over-burdening teachers, as we see happening in other countries, but I’m not sure they’d ever entertained this idea, and it worries me when something isn’t open to discussion.

But I’m conflicted.

I worry too that we’ve ultimately forgotten what school is for, that we’re beginning to slide towards a ‘hold-all’ model, like in the UK and the States. Teachers want to support the whole child but are asked to manage mental health, socio-economic deprivation, special needs and severe behavioural challenges without appropriate resources, training and support. Maybe shortening holidays would add to this?

I certainly don’t want to suggest that teachers trump parents and can do the impossible, in terms of single-handedly championing the child. The parent always matters more. The state and its trained experts are always needed. We need more help than we currently get. Maybe schools could collaborate with outside agencies during this time? Incorporating desperately-needed training for staff?

I’m happy to be wrong about all of this because it would mean a guilt-free summer for me and my family. 

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