As a child my school summer holiday seemed to last for ever. It was the late 1970s, back when children were still free-range and Web 2.0 and the Xbox had yet to be invented. A decade earlier the British pop icon Cliff Richard had already immortalised the spirit of summer in one of his many smash hits: “We’re all going on a summer holiday,” he chirped, “no more working for a week or two.”
But what if Cliff had sung, no more working for a week or 12? It wouldn’t have rhymed but it would have more closely reflected the reality of our UAE school summer holiday. Although I am nostalgic about my own sun-drenched childhood holidays, as an educator I have come to believe that the summer break is potentially detrimental to a child’s academic attainment. What does a child in the 21st century do with two or even three months away from school?
If you are fortunate enough to have parents with free time and resources, then perhaps you accompany them on edifying expeditions to the cultural capitals of the world, soaking in millennia of art, history and heritage en route. But if you are from a low-income single-parent household, edifying international jaunts are not an option.
I’m sure many young people, not to mention their parents, would value shorter summer holidays. Which raises the question, why are they so long in the first place? Who came up with the idea of a school holiday that runs two months, bordering on three?
Most experts say that the roots of summer school holidays are agrarian, going back to the days when most people lived off the land and the annual farming schedule was an all-important consideration. However, we have had an industrial revolution since then, and are now well into the second decade of our information revolution, so why has this throwback to the days of the plough and ox persisted?
Both president Barack Obama and Arne Duncan, the US education secretary since 2009, have called the traditional school day and school year outdated and inadequate to the demands of 21st century life. Perhaps it’s time for this anachronistic holiday to be retired, or at least rethought in the context of the UAE. For example, my childhood summers were great because in the UK, as in most northern European countries, the summer months are the best you’re going to get in terms of weather conducive to outdoor pursuits. Similarly, Australia has its summer holiday from December to February.
In the UAE, the period from July to September is synonymous with unbearable heat, so why not have a long winter break, if a long break must be had? Or why not forget about the sun and summer altogether and follow the moon, allowing the break to follow and include Ramadan?
This is not a trivial issue. There is overwhelming evidence detailing what educational researchers call “summer learning loss”. A Johns Hopkins University research team found that most of the achievement gap between children of varying socioeconomic status is attributable to differential summer learning experiences. Furthermore, these out-of-school summer learning experiences account for later life academic achievements such as completing college.
Essentially, poor kids lose more ground to their wealthy classmates once they’re all outside the classroom. In the US, schools that subscribe to the Knowledge Is Power Programme have seized on the summer as an opportunity to give their students, children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, an enriched educational experience. It includes at least three weeks of summer classes during the traditional summer break. KIPP’s results are impressive: 100 per cent of KIPP eighth-graders meet or exceed standards in maths; 94 per cent performed similarly in reading.
The UAE is obviously very serious about improving education with massive reform initiatives under way. An innovative rethinking of the summer holidays within the cultural context of the UAE would help.
Dr Justin Thomas is an associate professor of psychology at Zayed University
On Twitter: @DrJustinThomas