School summer holidays in England should be cut to four weeks, report says

<span>School’s in for summer? Under the recommendations, pupils would see their holidays cut short, with more time off in winter.</span><span>Photograph: Anthony Devlin/Getty Images</span>
School’s in for summer? Under the recommendations, pupils would see their holidays cut short, with more time off in winter.Photograph: Anthony Devlin/Getty Images

England should ditch its school calendar “stuck in place since Victorian times” and replace it with shorter summer holidays and longer half-term breaks to improve the lives of pupils and teachers, according to a new report.

The report on tackling post-pandemic education inequalities, to be published by the Nuffield Foundation next month, is to recommend an overhaul of the school calendar that could see summer holidays in state schools reduced from six weeks to four, while half-term breaks in autumn and winter could each be extended from one week to two.

The summary of the report says it is “time to consider reforms to a school calendar that has been stuck in place since Victorian times”.

Lee Elliot Major, professor of social mobility at the University of Exeter and one of the report’s authors, said reforming the academic calendar in England would be an effective and low-cost way of tackling the educational divides that have grown since the pandemic.

Related: Staff absences fell 50% after schools introduced longer half-term break

“Spreading school holidays more evenly across the year makes complete educational sense: improving the wellbeing of pupils and the working lives of teachers at no extra cost, balancing out childcare costs for parents, and potentially boosting academic results for many children,” Major said.

“Reducing the summer holidays from six weeks to four weeks would still provide adequate time for teachers to recuperate, while two-week breaks during the February and October half-terms would give much-needed time off during the most gruelling parts of the academic year.”

The report says that calls to reduce the length of holidays often centre around potential learning loss over the summer. Some pupils, especially those from financially disadvantaged backgrounds and those with additional learning needs, find it difficult to get back to learning after long summer holidays. This results in the autumn term being devoted to revision rather than advancing learning. Teachers also report more behavioural and wellbeing issues after the summer break.

The call for changes follows proposals by the Welsh government for changes to its school year starting in 2025-26, initially cutting the summer break to five weeks with a longer half-term in autumn. That could be followed by more radical measures, such as a further reduction to four weeks’ holiday in summer, and adjusting the timing of the Easter holidays.

The report notes that several school trusts and local authorities in England have already introduced a two-week autumn half-term break, or have incorporated staff training days into one week instead of being spread across the year.

Unity Schools Partnership, a multi-academy trust, said its experiment with a longer half-term last autumn saw absences fall sharply among pupils and teachers, but that some parents objected because of childcare difficulties.

Recent polling by the Teacher Tapp app found teachers were divided over whether the summer holidays should be shortened and by how much. While 33% backed keeping the summer break at six weeks, 35% wanted it shortened to five weeks and 29% preferred a reduction to four.

Calls to change the school calendar have been made repeatedly by policymakers. In 2013, the then education secretary, Michael Gove, urged changes, saying: “We can’t afford to have an education system that was essentially set in the 19th century.”

Related: Welsh schools could have shorter summer holidays in proposed shakeup

Under Gove, free schools and academies were given more freedom to set their own calendars. But those adopting more radical timetables soon gave up in the face of opposition from parents and an inability to coordinate term dates with other schools.

Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “Changing the length of the summer holiday is an idea that has been posited for many years and inevitably there are a range of different views.

“There is some evidence that suggests changes could be beneficial to pupils and parents, but other research has been far less conclusive. It’s important that the impact of any changes are properly considered and must not be rushed into.

“The Nuffield Foundation’s report identifies some very real issues, including the growing mental health crisis and the disparity between disadvantaged pupils and their peers. It’s possible that changes to the school calendar could ameliorate these problems to some extent. But it could also prove a huge energy-sapping distraction from the most pressing issues of recruitment and retention, special-needs provision and funding for education.”