Debunking the myths about longer school holidays


Michael Gove has called for shorter holidays and longer school days. Child psychologist Karen Sullivan looks at evidence and finds that the education secretary's arguments fall down.

The old chestnut of shorter summer holidays has reared its head once again, with Michael Gove suggesting that the traditional holiday is a relic of the 19th century and must be consigned to history. 

I find this disturbing. The “pressures” of modern society are responsible for the steep decline in emotional wellbeing in the UK and a UNICEF report confirmed that our children are some of the unhappiest in the world. One of the key elements of this is the imbalance between work and home life, both for parents and children. 

We should be encouraging families to spend more time together, rather than upping the ante on the education front and expecting children to sit in a classroom for more days, and more hours within every day.

This government has consistently downplayed the importance of family, nudging mothers back into the workforce and making it financially beneficial to pop kids into daycare at an increasingly early age.

Mr Gove holds the Asian system of longer school days and shorter holidays as an example, and claims that “we are fighting or actually running in this global race in a way that ensures that we start with a significant handicap”. There, Mr Gove, you are wrong. 

According to OECD data, we fall only just behind Asian countries in terms of teaching time as a percentage of total compulsory instruction time, and well ahead of most European countries (many of which fare much better in international education league tables). A Fullfact report notes: “Looking at data from the OECD report, we find that, though compulsory teaching hours per year vary at different age levels, the English education system places itself well above the OECD average and above the east Asian countries we’ve looked at … it appears that east Asian children – for the countries for which the OECD have data – have shorter school days, but more of them.”

Here in the UK, the fact that our independent schools, with their considerably longer holidays, produce higher results than schools in the state system is clear evidence that longer school holidays have no impact on overall performance. What’s more, although their school days are a little longer, they also manage to fit in several elongated games sessions (as well as PE and swimming) and much more time devoted to music and the arts. 

To my mind, the balance of work and play is much better managed here, and this something to which we should aspire, rather than producing a generation of stressed, robotic learners with no time for creativity, imagination, exercise, daydreaming and, most importantly, time with family.

Larry Cuban, a Stanford University professor of education, has argued that what matters most is the quality, not the quantity of time students and teachers spend together in the classroom, Other studies have found that the strongest relationship exists between engaged academic learning time and achievement. In other words, if teachers fully engage a class for an hour, they are much more likely to excel than students who sit for a whole day in an “unengaged” state.

Holidays offer opportunities for enrichment and learning beyond a set curriculum; for travel, games, reading, exploring ideas and personal interests, spending pressure-free time with family, and just relaxing. They also break the stress cycle for children, contributing to overall health and 


We should not be in competition with other countries to produce results; we should be aiming to produce happy, healthy children with a lifelong passion for learning and productive lives. That, to my mind, is the measure of success.

  • Karen Sullivan is a best-selling author, psychologist and childcare expert. Email


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