Will shorter summer holidays become a 2021 reality?

18 Mar 2021, 5:00


The legal powers and precedent make shorter summer holidays a possibility. The question for ministers and schools alike is whether they can sell the idea, writes Esther Maxwell

As the UK’s schools welcome pupils back through their doors after a sustained period of remote learning, the education sector is rife with questions around whether going back was the right approach and whether more is needed to help pupils catch up on almost 12 months of disruption.

As a potential solution, education secretary, Gavin Williamson recently outlined proposals being considered by government to help pupils catch up on lost learning. At the heart of these were drastic changes to how the school year runs, including the introduction of a five-term year, and shortened summer holidays. The response, so far, has been mixed, with many parties balancing the need to get curriculum back on track with more practical elements of the proposals, including how to effectively roll out and sustain mass testing programmes.

Unilaterally changing the structure of the academic year for all schools would be a bold move and would alter term timeframes that have been in place for many years. Under normal circumstances, the idea of introducing new legislation in a matter of months would seem extremely ambitious. However, during the course of the pandemic, the expedited introduction of the emergency Coronavirus legislation in a matter of weeks has shown that policymakers are able to move quickly, if the need is great enough.

A shortened summer break is likely to have its fans and its detractors

Academies, independent and maintained schools already have the freedom to set their own school term dates. However, the Coronavirus Act 2020 does make provision for the education secretary to unilaterally require schools to change their term dates through a temporary continuity direction under Schedule 17 of the Act.

A shortened summer break in the name of boosting learning for schoolchildren is likely to have both its fans and its detractors. Parents may, on the one hand, be glad of some extra time to focus on their own work after months of home schooling. But if pupils are called back into school as the summer holiday season gets into full swing, there may be pushback from some families aggrieved at having to curtail long-awaited holiday plans.

Teachers, on the other hand, despite having faced an incredibly tricky task during the pandemic, may take a more objective view. After all, for many, students’ learning is a central motivation. There will of course be strong opinions from the teaching unions around shortened holidays, but until government plans are better fleshed out, what that reaction is remains to be seen.

In the event that the school holidays are shortened, there will be administrative work for institutions to do between then and now. Even though there is a power in the Coronavirus Act 2020 to require schools to adopt certain school term dates, institutions will also need to consider the employment law implications before implementing those changes. Accordingly, any school which needs staff to alter their working hours should undergo a review of terms and conditions of employment.

Even though many teachers have a degree of flexibility built into their contracts, this may not be substantial enough if they are required to come to work weeks earlier or later than normal. In this case, employers would ideally need to get agreement from staff to changes to their terms and conditions of employment. They should begin a consultation with staff as early as possible, telling them what the proposals are, why they are being introduced and how they will affect them.

If agreement cannot be reached, there is always the option of terminating contracts and issuing new ones for individuals to sign. However, this carries significant legal risks. Depending on the numbers of staff involved, this could also trigger the need to undergo a formal collective consultation process, which involves significant time and effort.

If shorter summer holidays are announced and there is a need for extra staffing support, the best course of action for schools would be to sell the idea. It’s in students’ best interests, it would only be for a relatively short amount of time and – hopefully – it would only be for this year.

Time will tell what government decides, but one thing is for certain: school pupils have undergone a damaging 12 months and everything possible should be done to get their education back on track.

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  1. C. Palma

    What a completely stupid idea!
    Taking the children’s summer holiday is idiotic and we must stop thinking about ‘catch up’ in terms of maths, literacy and science etc but more about how to learn.
    The focus should be on developing the children’s concentration, collaboration skills, perseverance and social skills. When children have these skills then everything else should fall into place.
    All testing in primary schools should be shelved as this only measures academic achievements.
    Infants – should work on an early years approach and all formal learning should begin in Y3. This would bring us in line with other European schools (I have children come to school for the first time in year 3 and they have always exceeded by year 6). There are is no evidence that extra long terms and less holidays improves performance or helps children from disadvantaged backgrounds.
    Here’s a thought – why don’t all those idiotic and uninformed MPs who live in their ivory towers and who think they are in a position to decide education policy, ask teachers, head teachers or other educators (preferably educators who actually have contact with children) what we think.
    Be assured it is not more testing or longer terms!

  2. Kevan Naughton

    I’m response to the article a number of issues are raised. Most notably, the actual academic justification for extending school terms into the designated holidays. Until there is ‘clear and distinct’ academic justification for shortening the summer holidays, then any decisions become both ‘faith based’ and unproven. This, unfortunately, leaves the door ajar for criticism of this decision, as being more to reassure worried parents than academically sound. The obvious danger of this is that it could legitimately be seen as politically charged.
    The second issue relates to the planning of the provision, the timelines as the currently stand, do little to reassure headteachers. Teachers normally book holidays well in advance

  3. Kevan Naughton

    As a school leader, the Summer holidays I have long seen the Summer holiday as a hangover from an age of farming , where children were sent home to help families gather in crops and support the harvest.
    If holidays were moved to extend the winter break and build natural circuit breaks into the Spring and Autumn half terms, then teachers and the general public maybe much more inclined to support change.
    Finally, you cannot forget that teachers have worked long and hard during the pandemic, often already through designated holiday periods and in many cases 7 days in a week in reporting positive cases, for school leaders.
    The out of sight-out of mind danger is that, under immense pressure, we now push school leaders and staff to breaking point. The government is “duty bound” both in the generation of an academic justification and has a ‘duty of care’ to all members of the school community.
    Change can sometimes be for the better but only if it meets tight and rigorous thresholds, that currently have not been met. The response is in danger of appearing knee jerk, rushed and haphazard and an attempt to justify contractual changes.
    We all should place children at the heart of decision making but avoid the temptation to rush down an unproven path, that stores up huge problems further down the line. Sickness and absence in the longer term does little to promote long term improvement.

  4. Victoria Roberts

    I think it’s a good idea to shorten summer holidays as it’s the best interest of the students will help them academically as they have lost so much learning during the pandemic . Their education is important on our children for them to become better educated for their future.

    • Debra Alcock

      I do think they should shorten summer holidays children have missed 1 year from school the minority did home schooling were as the majority were outside not learning anything

  5. Marius Gaizauskas

    Having winter holiday instead of summers, would help to heal from all cold sneezes caughts and viruses, summer seems everyone healthier why not go to school then?
    And winter we just keeping ill and pretty much all bugs comes from school. Where im considering to remove children from school and start home schooling or other solution.
    Summer is working season for all. And winter we should get more rest. Would be better for health.

  6. Terry Thomas

    Perhaps we ought to spare a thought for our facilities teams and those that ensure school buildings remain open, heated and largely fit for purpose? A reduction in the length of the current summer break will have a detrimental impact on refurbishment, maintenance and renewal programmes that cannot be undertaken when pupils are in school (due to safety considerations). Expect even greater disruption to our working environment if these plans go ahead.