Learn or Play in the Summer Holidays?

11 August 2016


                  Photo copyright © Maaike Koning, 2016

I remember being taken on one of the most boring summer holidays ever as a child: ‘Les Chateaux de la Loire’ it said in the brochure – the castles of the Loire Valley in France. I think we visited pretty much every one of the 140 chateaux. We were clocking up three or four a day, in any case. The countryside was dull, the Loire was monotonous and after a while, the castles became a blur. By week two, I was refusing to leave the back seat of the car, preferring to turn back to the first page of The Swiss Family Robinson and start reading the book all over again. My mum, who was a teacher, told me that I was missing out on a wonderful learning opportunity. Think of all the poor working class children who didn’t have such opportunities and would go back to school in September with a learning gap, she said.

This was my first exposure to the idea of the ‘summer slide’ as it is now known. The ‘summer slide’ is supposed to occur when children are not intellectually stimulated during the long six week holiday and forget what they have learned. It sits uncomfortably with the notion that boredom is actually good for kids. Psychologists argue that boredom allows children to develop ‘internal stimulus’ which enables the development of creativity. Are working class kids more creative then, as a result? But the idea of free-ranging bored children in the summer holidays doesn’t chime with our (middle-class)compulsion to ‘consciously cultivate’ our kids in order to give them the best start in life. It is easier to take the safe path and provide structured education in the holidays.

These days in the UK, summer tutoring is practically the norm for middle-class families, especially those who can’t afford private education and try to make up the deficit this way. Many state schools are now offering enrichment lessons over the summer holidays and there are plenty of private companies offering high level courses like Debate Chamber. Some parents even send their kids on academic courses abroad. The idea of a ‘crammer’ is nothing newIt used to be a place to retake failed GCSEs or A levels or coach children for common entrance exams. The problem is that summer education risks becoming the norm for all children, raising the stakes, and making it even more impossible for less privileged children to keep up.

The crammer concept has now blown over to the Netherlands where Education Secretary, Sander Dekker, has announced plans to introduce summer schools in which children can work on subjects in which they have fallen behind. The Netherlands has a more egalitarian school system: there is no gaping chasm between rich and poor because everyone can attend the same good state schools. However, what they do have, which the UK doesn’t have – is children having to repeat a year if their results aren’t good enough. At primary school, this seems like a good idea – a proportion of young children aren’t ready to enter the learning stream at six years old and can hang back a year in nursery grade and play a bit more. There is no shame in this. Children who learn more slowly are given a chance to go at their own pace. Gifted children can move up through the classes more quickly.

At secondary school, however, having to repeat a year can be demotivating for the student. If the child could catch up on the subjects they failed during the summer, they could proceed to the next year. It makes sense and, of course, is cheaper for the government. But I hope the Netherlands sticks with the crammer concept and things don’t go too far down the road of increasing stakes and decreasing returns. Where are my own kids this week? My son’s on a surf camp on the island of Texel and my daughter’s on a mixed sports camp in Amsterdam. Personally, I think they’ll garner more useful life skills doing sports out in the fresh air than they would in an academic environment. What do you think? What are your kids doing this summer?