The terms, they are a-changing…

By Ben Durbin

Tuesday 2 July 2013

All English state schools will soon have the freedom to decide their own term dates. But would a demise of the traditional long summer break necessarily be a good thing? Besides the impact on sales of suncream and umbrellas, how will it affect pupils and their learning?

Many of the arguments in favour of reform doing the rounds make good common sense. Children forget what they’ve learned, and forget how to learn, during the long summer holidays. Children get into the most trouble when they’re bored. Too much ice cream is linked to delinquency (OK, perhaps not that last one). Sure, there are the practical challenges of coordinating term dates across schools – especially for parents with children in different schools – but devolving the powers to schools who know their pupils and parents best must surely be a Good Thing.

But are common sense and ideological purpose enough to justify policy reform? I’m sorry to be predictable (writing on the blog from the National Foundation for Educational Research!), but there’s also the small matter of the evidence.

I would love to be able to whip out a handy literature review I made earlier, inspired by those long childhood summer holidays glued to Blue Peter. Unfortunately BBC producers in the 1980s were not quite so forward thinking. In fact I’m afraid to say there seems to be very little evidence at all being brought to the debate – just talk of a bygone agrarian society. If anyone could point me to where this discussion about the evidence is taking place, I would be most grateful.

The most recent research NFER have conducted on this subject is now nearly 10 years old, actually a literature review on the subject. But old research is generally better than no research, so what did it find…?

The main finding of this literature review is that the evidence base is weak. Although there is a great deal of advocacy for the benefits of calendar change, there is relatively little recent research on the subject. There are some concerns about the quality of some of the studies that have been conducted (in relation to independence, design, methodology and reporting). This limits the ability of the review to provide information that may be helpful to policy makers and practitioners.

So there would appear to be a common theme emerging – a lack of evidence. I would therefore like to make a controversial suggestion – perhaps we could conduct some research?

The new freedoms being granted to schools present a perfect opportunity. All it would take is a group of forward-looking schools who are interested in making changes to their school calendar, but who are genuinely open-minded as to its effectiveness. Half those schools could make changes immediately, and the other half could wait until the following academic year. If the schools were allocated randomly to the two groups, by comparing outcomes we can see what difference the changes make.

Schools all over the country can then make judgements about their school calendars that balance local needs with insights from rigorous research evidence. Common sense and ideology have their place, but both must be subjected to objective scrutiny if we are serious about doing the best we can for our children.

Further reading: School’s in for summer? - Kerry Martin’s SecEd article on what NFER evidence reveals about the secrets of setting up, running and embedding a successful Summer School programme.