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How to stop your children experiencing 'learning loss' during the school holidays, with tips from teachers

A child leaning down to look at something in the grass using a magnifying glass
It may be the holidays but, says Anna Tyzack, parents should still look for opportunities to keep young minds sharp Credit:  National Trust

Nothing is more exciting for my three children than a school-free summer stretching out in front of them. As Philip Ward, headmaster of Thomas’s Clapham points out, the summer holiday is a precious time for children to decompress, relax and unwind, and to be unshackled from the routines of daily life at school.

I’m all in favour of lie-ins and lazy days with no homework – or at least I was until I heard about the “learning loss” that can accompany weeks out of the classroom. In fact, a 2017 report by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Hunger found that it can take six weeks for students, particularly those from low-income families, to get back up to speed, with a knock-on effect on the rest of the school year.

Helen Fox, a primary school teacher and the founder of Pop Up Phonics 
(popupphonics.co.uk), says it is not unknown for children to return from the long summer break having seemingly slipped backwards in their maths or literacy abilities. A survey of more than 1,000 primary and secondary schools in England indicated that 77 per cent of primary school leaders and 60 per cent of secondary leaders were concerned about learning loss among their pupils, while a survey by Explore Learning tutoring centres, (explorelearning.co.uk), found that 54 per cent of parents felt it was important to keep up with maths over the summer – yet it was the subject they found hardest to help their children with.

But before you start panic-booking a tutor for your child, here is the good news: neither Ward nor Fox recommends summer tutoring – or believes that the school holidays should be made shorter. Hannah Tongue, head of lower school at Thomas’s, describes learning loss as “a slight dip in things like writing and maths, because they haven’t been practising as regularly”.

The reality is that, within a couple of weeks, most children are back to where they were at the end of the summer term. “Tutoring can be counterproductive, as it can give children learning fatigue and occasionally contradict methods being taught at school,” says Fox. “As a teacher, I hardly ever recommend for parents to do summer holiday homework with their children, unless there’s a specific learning need.”

That is not to say that learning shouldn’t occur during the holidays – it should. But the holidays are time for a different kind of learning to the structure of school. “It’s an opportunity to reinforce their learning in the real world,” Tongue says. “They’ll still be learning all the time but in a different way; their confidence will develop as they spend time with older cousins or family friends and are able to take risks in a safe environment.”

And there are countless fun tasks parents can deploy to consolidate their children’s learning. Judo or cricket camp will help them develop resilience, a crucial life skill, says Tongue, while encouraging them to keep a diary or write postcards will help develop their writing.

Any engaging, stimulating activities will keep a child’s brain developing, agrees Fox. Lego, craft and Play-Doh can help develop fine motor skills that in turn improve their handwriting and stamina. Setting up an accessible “writing table” for children can also encourage them to practise writing of their own accord, she says, especially if you furnish it with exciting stationery such as Post-it Notes, glitter pens and lockable notebooks. “You can even stick key words up nearby to reinforce spellings,” she continues. “For children learning phonics and letter formation, you can organise games such as a phonics scavenger hunt or writing letters in the sand on the beach.”

Primary teacher Helen Fox, who founded Pop Up Phonics, with her daughters Credit:  Jeff Gilbert

Schools will often provide children with some structured tasks to compliment summer holiday learning. “If your school does set holiday work, ­anticipate the right time and place for your child to tackle it, with you giving positive support – don’t leave it until the day before term starts,” Ward says.

If your school doesn’t set work, it can be a good idea to ask them to provide a curriculum map with next year’s topics, Fox adds. “It may be that a trip to the British Museum might compliment their learning if they’re studying ancient Egypt, for example, or a trip to a local wetlands centre if they’re looking at animal habitats,” she says. Cultural trips and adventures not only enhance children’s understanding and enthusiasm for the topic, but also give them the chance to ask tricky questions about history or science. “Choose activities that appeal to your specific child and encourages their thinking and problem-solving skills,” Fox says. “A ‘journey journal’ for a budding travel writer, mummifying an orange for a Stem master or a geocaching challenge for an adventurer.”

Of course, all these things take time, which many working parents might not have. This is why organisations such as Tutor House (tutorhouse.co.uk) have become popular, offering excursions to museums and galleries, music lessons, sport and language experience to children over the summer. “We tend to focus on academic subjects in the morning and activities and sport in the afternoon,” explains Alex Dyer, founder of Tutor House. “These months out of the classroom are a great opportunity to promote both academic and personal development, while keeping it exciting and fun.”

Research indicates that children whose parents fill the summer holidays with learning opportunities, such as summer camps, museums and trips, retain more knowledge over the summer holidays.

A survey in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers: The Story of Success, showed that children from the poorest families regressed academically over the summer, whereas middle-class children progressed, even though both groups progressed at the same rate during term time. “Virtually all the advantage that the wealthy students have over poor students is the result of differences in the way privileged kids learn when they are not in school,” Gladwell writes. In response to this knowledge gap, the Department for Education announced £2 million of funding for programmes providing children with summer activities and meals to support low-income families.

Helen Fox reading to her children Credit:  Jeff Gilbert

But summer activities need not be expensive nor particularly structured, says Fox, who suggests that the main academic focus over the summer holidays should be reading. “For children of all ages, reading, or being read to, should be a non-negotiable part of every day,” she says. “Research shows that being read to regularly has many medium and long-term benefits for children.” Ward agrees that reading is the most important way to supplement your child’s learning, and suggests that all parents ask schools for a reading list of fun, age-appropriate books to read over the summer.

Aside from reading, pottering at home and watching some telly won’t hurt at all, he says. “There are plenty of things on TV which can support and compliment aspects of school learning.” The only thing parents have to be strict about is managing their children’s time on devices, he adds. The NHS guidelines for that are no more than two hours a day. Ward suggests encouraging your child to make a list of things they can do to occupy themselves instead. “Don’t worry if they say they’re bored; boring is often a healthy way to relax.”

Fox recommends trying to see the summer as your chance to help them grow. “Don’t overlook all of the wonderful opportunities for helping your own child with the added bonus of getting to spend time with them doing it,” he says, adding that the summer holiday is the probably the first unbroken period of time for months when parents and siblings can reconnect. “My advice is don’t squander the opportunity. Your children are a very short time young.”