In Australia, the standard length of the summer holidays for a government school is 6 weeks, running from mid-December to the end of January. It might feel interminable to parents, but compared to the rest of the world, this is quite short. It turns out this might not be a bad thing.
The lengthy summer holidays enjoyed by school children in the United States have been popularised by Hollywood, so most Aussie school kids would already know that they are relatively short-changed when it comes to school holidays. The summer break in the USA stretches from June to September (or May to August in the south) for 10 to 11 weeks, but they’re not actually the longest summer holidays around the globe.
Many African countries have summer holidays that last more than ten weeks, typically from June to September in the north of the continent. The length varies, but can be as much as 14 weeks, or three months, in countries such as Egypt and Libya.
In the south, there is a wide variability in summer holidays from around 6 weeks in South Africa (December-January) to 3 months in South Sudan (December -March).
In Japan, school holidays vary by district but tend to organise their school year into three terms with the long summer holidays running from late July to the end of August – around 6 weeks. It’s not uncommon for children to be expected to complete homework tasks over their holidays, including daily kanji and maths drill and book reviews.
Chinese schools structure their year into two semesters, and take their summer break for two months from early July to late August. Again, learning over the summer break is common.
In India, most schools limit their summer breaks to no more than six weeks, and can start any time from March to May, depending on how far north they are. Some of the mountainous regions in the far north of India have very short summer school holidays, instead having long winter breaks that can last up to ten weeks.
A summer break of up to three months is common in many Middle-eastern countries, including Jordon, Lebanon and Oman.
Summer school holidays in Italy are some of the longest in the world, three months stretching from early June to early September, but they are not alone. Other European countries with a mega-long summer break include Latvia, Malta, Hungary, Spain and until recently, Romania.
Schools in Zurich only get a five-week break over summer, while a handful of countries such as England, Germany and Denmark have shorter summer breaks of 6 weeks like Australia. Two months is standard in the Czech Republic, France, and Belgium.
We won’t talk about Greece, where school holidays last for three and a half months, from the start of June to mid-September.
Issues associated with long summer breaks
The genesis of the long summer break is often said to come from farming and agrarian families needing their children at home to help in the fields, but evidence for this is patchy, especially considering that harvest and sowing times tend to fall outside the hot summer months. Moreover, by the time schooling became compulsory in most countries, the Industrial Revolution had relocated the majority of the population to cities rather than country towns and regional areas.
Regardless of why we have the longest break over summer instead of more equitable holidays during the year, there are obvious benefits that come from long holidays (both for students and staff).
The break from formal learning allows students and staff time to relax and reduce the stress that can build over the course of the year. It allows families to travel and is a good time for students to move between schools.
However, there are also concerns that the long breaks between school years can also lead to learning loss. Sometimes referred to as the summer slide, it is when a student does not use their learned skills over their holiday break and returns to school at a lower academic level than they were at the end of the previous year.
Although the phenomenon was first noticed at least a century ago, one of the first meta-studies on summer slide was published in 1996 (1) and showed that children lose knowledge in both reading and math over the summer months, and that the effect could be compounded as they lose skills each year. The loss to maths skills was more significant than for reading and the analysis also showed that the effect was stronger as students progressed through their schooling.
The NWEA in the United States regularly conducts research into summer learning loss using national data from millions of students. A recent study found that the average student lost between 17-34% of the prior year’s learning gains over their summer break, and reconfirmed the earlier result that ‘students who lose ground in one summer are more likely to also lose ground in subsequent summers. (2)’
Given then, that teachers are faced with the task of not only teaching a new year of material, but also assisting students in regaining lost learning as well, perhaps the relatively short six-week break can now be seen in a different light.
- (1) The Effects of Summer Vacation on Achievement Test Scores: A Narrative and Meta-Analytic Review – Harris Cooper, Barbara Nye, Kelly Charlton, James Lindsay, Scott Greathouse, 1996 (sagepub.com)
- (2) Summer Learning Loss: What We Know and What We’re Learning (nwea.org)