Wales is making the latest attempt to detach school holidays from the agricultural needs and religious events that have influenced dates for 150 years, arguing it helps parents and disadvantaged children to have fixed breaks spread out more evenly through the year.
Citing research that parents struggle to find childcare over the long summer holiday, Wales’s minority Labour administration wants to shrink the summer holidays from six weeks to five and eventually four, and use the time to double half-term breaks in October and May to two weeks.
The proposals would also equalise the length of terms and break the connection with Easter by fixing the timing of spring holidays regardless of the religious calendar, to give parents and schools greater certainty.
Research by the Welsh government found that organising and paying for childcare over the summer was a common complaint among parents, particularly for women running smaller businesses whose childcare costs outweighed their potential earnings.
Siân Gwenllian, the designated member for Plaid Cymru, which supports the proposals, said: “The current school calendar was designed a long time ago, under very different circumstances and we are suggesting changes that could work better for everyone, but most importantly for pupils of all ages.
“Many children and young people, especially those with additional learning needs and those from lower-income families find the break very long, impacting negatively on their wellbeing and education.”
Lee Elliot Major, a professor of social mobility at the University of Exeter, said: “Reforms to the current school calendar created during Victorian times are long overdue – and would be good for children, parents and teachers alike.
“Terms of almost equal length would make for better educational planning. After summer exams, teachers could dedicate time to extracurricular activities – the sports, music and art work that often fall by the wayside in a test-obsessed world.”
But the evidence on whether long school holidays harm learning among children is unclear, according to experts. Much of the evidence for the “summer slide” comes from the US, where summer holidays are far longer, up to 12 weeks compared with the existing six or seven in England and Wales.
John Hattie, a professor of education at the University of Melbourne and an influential researcher and author, said: “The effects from school holiday are very small on students, and there is little reason to believe that the length of the school year has much effect at all.”
Research in UK schools tends to support Hattie’s comment. A study from 2019 that looked at pupils from primary schools in an area of high deprivation in Scotland and England found no effect on reading skills and only “stagnation” in spelling ability. Meanwhile, schools in Northern Ireland typically have eight weeks off over summer yet generally have better exam results than schools in England or Wales.
And research published last year, testing a wider group of UK children and age groups before and after the summer, found “no evidence that inequalities in verbal cognitive ability widened over the school summer holidays”.
But the 2022 study did find evidence of “worsening mental health and mental health inequalities” in some age groups. That concern was echoed in focus groups conducted on behalf of the Welsh government.
According to one teacher in Wales: “The six weeks can be a really long time if they’ve got issues at home, and they’ve got no support staff to talk to. They’re out on a limb in that respect. Some of the kids dread having the six weeks off.”
Surveys done in Wales found 60% of parents said they were “quite happy with the school year as it is”. But when asked about the potential changes, most also agreed the current summer was too long and would support a shorter summer break and equal terms.
“When we think about it, these holidays are archaic, they were set up with a sort of long summer harvest, which doesn’t suit the needs of children or adults today,” one parent said.
So why have a longer summer holiday at all? According to Hattie, students and teachers do need time to “recharge their batteries doing other activities”, while school leaders remain firmly in favour of an extended summer break.
Patrick Roach, the general secretary of the NASUWT teaching union, says there is no evidence that changing holidays would address any of the fundamental problems facing schools in Wales such as teacher recruitment. “The Welsh government are flogging a dead horse,” Roach said.
In England, the former education secretary Michael Gove was among those who have tried to reshape the school year. In 2013 Gove complained that “the structure of the school term and the school day was designed at a time when we had an agricultural economy”, and gave schools in England the power to choose the timing of their holidays.
One school that took up Gove’s offer was the Boulevard academy in Hull, which attempted to cut its summer holiday to four weeks. But it proved unpopular while other schools maintained the traditional dates, and the school now has a six-week summer holiday.