Friday 20 April 2018

Do pupils lose out in our long summer holidays?

Summer school: Jonathan Daleo (14), Mark Smith (17), Úna McGlynn (14), Gantsetseg Otgonsuren (17) and Khorolsuren Natsagdorj (16) enjoying the Discover University programme run by the Early Learning Initiative at the National College of Ireland. Photo: El Keegan
Summer school: Jonathan Daleo (14), Mark Smith (17), Úna McGlynn (14), Gantsetseg Otgonsuren (17) and Khorolsuren Natsagdorj (16) enjoying the Discover University programme run by the Early Learning Initiative at the National College of Ireland. Photo: El Keegan
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

As the school year ends, primary teachers will look forward to relaxing for the summer, but there will be familiar gripes from parents about the holidays of Irish pupils being too long.

Second-level students have already been on holiday for almost month unless they were doing public exams.

The Department of Education sets out the summer holiday schedule:

* Post primary schools will not be open beyond the Friday preceding the June bank holiday in any year so as to facilitate the state examinations.

* Primary schools usually finish the school year some time during the last week in June.

* Schools will normally re-open during the week in which September falls.

Dr Josephine Bleach, Director of the Early Initiative at the National College of Ireland, believes the school summer holidays are far too long in Ireland and help to heighten educational disadvantage.

Irish second-level students have the second longest holidays among OECD countries with a total of 19 weeks, and are only matched by Greece for the number of days spent out of the classroom.

When second-level pupils in Ireland are knocking off school at the end of May, some of their unfortunate counterparts in parts of Germany still have two months in school. In Britain, second-level schools will not break up until July 11.

Holidays at primary level in Ireland are closer to the EU average.

Dr Bleach says: "Our school holidays are designed for an era when children would be required to work on farms in the summer. Nowadays, 12-year-olds usually don't spend time cutting hay or weeding turnips, but the school holidays remain the same."

In his book Outliers, American writer Malcolm Gladwell popularised research at John Hopkins University showing that students from disadvantaged backgrounds lose out as a result of long school holidays.

The attainment gap between middle class and poorer children grows over the holidays, because the former have a range of cultural experiences during the holidays.

In other words, education has not really ended when schools break up. Middle class kids are dragged along to museums and art galleries and signed up to courses.

According to Dr Bleach, in the summer, middle class parents supplement their child's education with courses and activities, but this can come at a heavy cost.

Thousands of teenagers are now in the Gaeltacht with their parents shelling out around €900 each for the privilege.

This will give them a head start over families who cannot afford the courses, particularly when there is a greater concentration on oral language in exams.

Dr Bleach says: "It is easy for parents to spend up to €3,000 on courses in the summer, but this is just not possible for parents who are less well off."

Dr Bleach, author of Parental Involvement in Primary Education, argues that primary holidays should be a maximum of six weeks, and the second-level summer term should extend beyond the public exams.

"The extra time in school should not necessarily be spent on academic work. It would enable schools to cover all those topics which have to be fitted in during the school year, including covering issues as mental health, and PE, religion art and music."


The teaching unions would put up stiff resistance to any shortening of the school year.

Another option would be to spread the holidays more evenly through the year so that students, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, do not forget what they have learned during the long break.

Irish teachers may get longer holidays than their European counterparts, but they argue that they work longer hours during term time.

According to OECD figures, Irish second-level teachers spend 735 hours teaching every year, which is above the average of 709. Despite the perception of short hours, Irish primary teachers spend 915 hours at the chalkface, compared to an OECD average of 790 hours.

As the primary school holidays begin, Dr Josephine Bleach offers tips for parents on how their children can get the best out of them.

"It should be a time to chill out for children. A parent should go with the child's interests.

"They can take time in the summer to do the things that fascinate them.

"You should give them time to get outside - whether they are having water fights, lying on the grass reading a book, flying kites or going to the beach."

Not all organised activities for children in the summer are expensive. Public galleries may have free art courses, and there are also many free events for children in libraries.

Dr Bleach says: "What makes a crucial difference during the summer is how parents talk with their children about their activities.

"It really benefits children when you go to the zoo to talk about the animals and what they see there.

"If you are at the beach there are all sorts of things you can talk about with your children - the habitats, the sea shells and the crabs."

White board jungle

Paul Rowe, head of the fast-growing Educate Together movement, made an impassioned plea to ministers at the opening of a new school at Esker in West Dublin.

The new building at Esker Educate Together National School was officially opened after a wait of no less than eight years. The school had been in temporary accommodation since 2007.

The area had expanded rapidly with new housing when the authorities copped on in the mid-noughties that a school was needed, and now it is finally there. Paul Rowe said: "This should not have had to happen. These huge housing estates should not have been built without schools…"

He appealed to ministers present to promise that never again will thousands of houses be built without early provision of schools.

The Educate Together chief executive said the law should be changed so that a school must be provided before a builder can finish more than 100 homes.

Perhaps this type of forward-planning is too much to expect.

Irish Independent

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