The great school holiday debate

Written by: Gerry Mallaghan | Published:

How would you restructure the school year to better support and improve teacher wellbeing and student learning? Gerry Mallaghan proposes a shorter summer break and longer half-terms...

According to official government statistics, every year since 2012, the number of teachers recruited to the profession has been below target.

Since 2010, teacher numbers have not matched the increasing student numbers, resulting in an increase in the teacher-to-pupil ratio.

The data shows that in the 12 months prior to November 2016, 50,100 teachers left the state education system. This wastage rate of 10.5 per cent was also seen in data from 2015 (10.5 per cent) and 2014 (10.4 per cent).

From the 2011 trainee teacher cohort, 31 per cent had left the state education system within five years. From the 2007 cohort, 40 per cent had left within 10 years.

It can be argued if the word crisis applies or not, but there is clearly a growing issue with the recruitment and retention of teachers.

In my opinion, the issue is being compounded by the fact that the government is focusing much more heavily on recruitment than retention – although recent announcements on workload suggest this may be changing slowly.

So, what do you do?

Recently, at a party, I was asked the traditional small talk question: “So, what do you do?”

This led to me listening to the same dialogue that I have heard many times over my career:

  • “What age group do you work with?”
  • “Oh, I couldn’t be a teacher.”
  • “I bet it’s nice finishing at 3pm every day. And I bet the holidays are nice!”
  • And then follows an explanation of why the summer holiday is way too long!

The issue of school holidays reached the news a while ago after one person suggested on a mumsnet forum (see further information) that schools should run for 52 weeks a year!

Of course, schools cannot and should not run for 52 weeks a year. However, I did start to think about the longer July/August summer break, currently one of the shortest summer holiday breaks in Europe, and the impact it might have on issues including teaching, learning, teacher recruitment and teacher retention.

Like many teachers, I use the week-long half-term break as a chance to catch up on marking and paperwork, rather than to really take a rest (we may not go into school and we certainly enjoy a break from the routine, but the workload too often continues unabated).

A new model

So, what if the week-long half-term breaks became two-week breaks, as in many independent schools. Would teachers actually take some time off to relax or would they just work for the two weeks?

During the extended Easter and Christmas breaks I know that I do take some down time. Would teachers find it easier to cope if they had the opportunity to take some down time more regularly over the year?

Some considerations

Without a change in the length of the school day or year, the longer half-term breaks would result in a shorter summer break. It is my experience, that the longer summer break provides teachers with an opportunity to completely switch off in a way that the shorter week-long breaks often do not. So there is a risk that, without the longer summer break to recharge, the rate of teacher burn-out would increase.

What about the students? If asked, most students would express their dissatisfaction at the concept of losing the summer holidays.

However, research has suggested that an extended summer break results in at least a stagnation in students’ learning (Shinwell & Defeyter, 2017).

It should also be noted that research has not proven a link between the length of a school year and academic success. Finland has a shorter school year than the UK, but has a much better ranked education system.

For some students, school offers a safe and structured environment and they do not look forward to an extended period of time at home and or away from school. Unfortunately, there is no way of knowing if changing to shorter summer breaks would have a positive, negative or even any impact at all on these students.

Changes to the school year would also have an impact on childcare provision. The extended summer break already provides parents with a challenge. Would the advantages of a shorter summer break be overshadowed by the issues created by the longer more regular breaks? If schools adopt different term dates, there are implications for families with children at different schools. And what would be the impact on summer schools and clubs?

Most people are aware of the significant mark-up that is put on the price of holidays during the summer break. It is argued that this is simply a consequence of supply and demand and companies use the increased revenue from the summer holidays to cover losses that occur at quieter times in the year. Although, it has also been argued that these companies are simply profiteering from the system.

Data from the Office for National Statistics in 2015 shows that on average UK residents spend between eight and 15 days on holiday at a time. With regular breaks of two weeks spread over the year, people would have more choice in when to book a holiday. The optimist in me wants to believe that with more regular income spread over the year, the travel industry would have a harder time trying to justify the large mark-up on holidays during the summer break.

At the very least it will provide people with an opportunity to book their holidays another time in the year without the need to leave family behind for Christmas or Easter.

In practice?

So how would it work if the summer holiday was reduced in favour of more regular but longer breaks across the entire year?

First, the school year would probably need to stay the same length, with 39 school weeks and 13 weeks of school holidays. When I first started teaching, the school year started in September. Now I find myself back in a classroom teaching at the end of August. So, for consistency, my proposed system would see the school year always start in September.

During my career I have had the challenge of teaching for nine straight weeks during the winter months. In my opinion, this has a significant negative impact on the health and work ethic of both staff and students. Therefore, the proposed system has six teaching blocks – three that are six weeks in length and three that are seven weeks in length.

Between each teaching block there is a minimum of a two-week holiday. This would allow staff and students time to complete any homework or work they needed to get done, while (hopefully) still leaving them time to take a break and rest.

There must be a break over the Christmas and new year period for obvious reasons. The run-up to the Christmas holiday period is always a bit manic. To help ease the pressures of the holiday season there is an extended three-week break over the Christmas and new year period. This provides staff and students time before Christmas to prepare for the holiday season and time after the new year to recover before returning to school.

Unlike Christmas Day, Easter Sunday is not a fixed date and often causes issues with the structure of the school year. To avoid this, if Easter Sunday falls outside of the two-week holiday period at the end of April then schools will be closed for the public holidays – i.e. Good Friday and Easter Monday.

The May Day bank holiday is the first Monday of May. Under my proposal, the May Day bank holiday would sometimes fall into a two-week break, as it does in the existing system with the May half-term break. If it falls outside of a two-week break, then the bank holiday would be added onto the end of the two week break that occurs in April/May. This would still preserve the current public exam season with a seven-week block of school time over May and June. This would minimise the impact of any changes on exam boards.

Then after the exam season, there would be a further two-week break near the end of June and another six-week block running to early August. A two-week summer break would then bring us back to September.

Having mapped this system out for the years to come, the only real issue I encountered was the need to extend the summer holidays to three weeks for some years to ensure dates for the next academic year aligned.

Any proposal to change the structure of the school year would need much more research evidence to justify it. However, with a growing shortage in the number of teachers, any ideas that could improve retention and recruitment must be worth discussion. 

The proposed model as it would look for the 2019/20 academic year:

  • Block 1: September 2 to October 18
  • Half-term : Two-week break
  • Block 2: November 4 to December 20
  • Christmas: Three-week break
  • Block 3: January 13 to February 21
  • Half-term : Two-week break
  • Block 4: March 9 to April 24
  • End of term: Two-week break
  • Block 5: May 11 to June 19
  • Half-term : Two-week break
  • Block 6: July 6 to August 14
  • End of term: Two-week summer break


  • Gerry Mallaghan is an experienced teacher working at Lutterworth College in Leicestershire. You can read his previous SecEd pieces at http://bit.ly/2HS0fbN

Further information

  • To think we should do away entirely with school holidays? Mumsnet, May/June 2018: http://bit.ly/2E0dfNt
  • School’s out for summer: Which European students have the longest holidays? Beswick, July 2017: http://bit.ly/2rg7FOZ
  • Investigation of Summer Learning Loss in the UK: Implications for Holiday Club Provision, Shinwell & Defeyter, 2017: http://bit.ly/2FJwcpF


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