The pros and cons of longer days and shorter breaks

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While Michael Gove says shorter holidays and longer days could help to improve outcomes, a quick internet search reveals he is cherry-picking his facts, finds our headteacher diarist.

Recently Michael Gove raised the issue of the length of school holidays and the school day – the former are apparently too long, the latter too short. 

It was suggested that a combination of four-week summer holidays and a school day finishing at 4:30pm would lead to improvements in pupil attainment. In addition, of course, such changes were described by Mr Gove as being “family friendly” and therefore, politically at least, clearly a good thing.

Leaving aside the suspicion that the driving force behind these proposals is to shift yet more of the burden (and cost) of childcare from parents to schools, it is worth looking more closely at Mr Gove’s assertion that longer days + shorter holidays = improved performance.

Many teachers would agree that a shorter summer holiday could have benefits in terms of pupil performance. It is widely recognised that during the summer holidays children forget a certain amount and it can take a while in September to recover this lost ground. 

In addition, children may just get out of the habit and discipline of school during a six-week break, leading to behaviour problems when they return as they readjust to the school routine. It is possible, though by no means certain, that reducing the summer holidays to four weeks could mitigate some of these problems

A shorter summer holiday could certainly be part of a redistribution of the overall holiday in the school year. There could be longer breaks at other times of the year. For example, a two-week half-term break in the autumn term could have benefits for both staff and pupils in what is usually the longest term of the year.

However, it is important not to lose sight of the potential benefits of the long summer break. It should not just be viewed as a six-week childcare challenge. It is an opportunity for families to spend time together and/or to travel without students having to revise or to worry about upcoming exams. In this sense, the summer holidays are different to the other holidays during the school year. The benefits of a long break should not be overlooked − I still remember that wonderful feeling of waking up on the first day of the summer holidays with the prospect of the long break stretching out in front of me.

In terms of the length of the school day, at first glance one might think that Mr Gove is on safer ground. More time at school must surely mean higher standards? My immediate response is only if this extra time is productive.

Mr Gove cites other countries where school hours are longer and the children achieve higher standards. However, a quick search online will provide plenty of examples of countries with apparently higher standards than the UK, but which have shorter school days (e.g. some of the Scandinavian countries). Mr Gove is, as politicians tend to, cherry-picking his facts.

When Mr Gove talks about increasing the length of the school day, he is suggesting extending it later into the day. While this clearly fits well with his (main?) objective of rebalancing childcare between parents and schools, I suggest that it is almost certainly the least effective option in terms of actually improving pupil performance. 

I would start the school day earlier (at say 8am) because (as I am sure most teachers will recognise) students’ attention and learning capacity drop significantly in the afternoon. Adding an extra hour to the end of the day will just exacerbate this problem. Also, what about the time for students to do homework? This is never likely to be their main priority, but if they arrive home an hour later, it is even less likely that they will sit down and do it before the usual distractions come into play.

  • Diary of a headteacher is written anonymously and in rotation by three practising headteachers from schools across the country.


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