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Back to the books When school holidays might be too long

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Children in Switzerland are returning to school after the long summer break. But have they forgotten much of what they learned before the holidays?

Mid to late August means the end of the summer holidays for most school children. Many, it seems, will not have looked at a school book for some time, which might be a problem.

“What is clear, is that the longer the holidays, the greater the tendency to forget what was learned during the school year,” confirmed educationalist Bruno Suchaut to Swiss public radio RTSexternal link.

According to recent studies from Germanyexternal link, Austriaexternal link and Sweden, this is particularly true for maths, but less so for reading, although writing also suffers.

In the United States, which has done more research on the area, the phenomenon is known as “Summer learning loss”.external link It is particularly true for children from disadvantaged backgrounds, the US results show.

In France, too, the effect on children from less privileged backgrounds, especially at primary school level, has been noted, said Suchautexternal link, who heads canton Vaud’s research department for monitoring education systems, and is also a professor at the University of Lausanne.

What can be done

He said that it was important for local authorities and government departments especially “to think about looking after some pupils during the holidays”. Teachers too had to take into account the long break. The first few weeks were important to ensure pupil inequality did not increase, he said.

What’s important is how children are kept occupied, said University of Bern education professor Tina Hascher in an article that appeared mid July in several German-speaking newspapers, including the tabloid Blickexternal link. This could be building a tree house or reading a good book – not cramming in maths.

Motivation might need to come from the parents, and this may be easier in families with stronger educational backgrounds, Hascher noted. Language levels might also suffer in families with a non-Swiss native language, so keeping up with friends is important, she added.

Hascher also thought it would be useful to have holiday care, for example offering accompanied visits to museums or outdoors, at special tariffs for low income families.

How long?

So is there an ideal length for the school holidays? “We have to ensure that children can recover well,” Hascher said. But it would be better if all the school holidays were more evenly distributed over the year. “Four weeks in summer should be enough,” she said.

Suchaut is not sure there is an ideal length. Besides, it varies across the cantons – who are in charge of educational matters in Switzerland. In the French-speaking part of the country, it’s 7-8 weeks, depending on the canton. In some German-speaking parts, including Zurich, it’s only five weeks. Italian-speaking Ticino on the other hand enjoys a full 11 weeks of vacation.

Globally, some parts of Asia, like South Korea, Japan, only have four weeks, whereas Italy and Spain have up to 13, he added. The United States and Canada have 10-11 weeks.

Suchaut argues however that how holidays are allocated over the year is key. The ideal, researchers say, is seven weeks of work to two of holidays, but it’s difficult to do in practice due to public holidays such as at Easter and Christmas.

Teachers’ view

Beat A. Schwendimann, board member of the Federation of Swiss Teachersexternal link, said that Switzerland had one of the shortest summer breaks in Europe.

“The summer learning loss can therefore be considered as being smaller in Switzerland than in other countries,” he told by email.

He agreed that parents could support their children in finding stimulating activities during the holidays and noted that the country had a long-standing tradition of vacation programmes for children, organised by local municipalities and youth organisations, with affordable options.

Schwendimann said there was no optimal length for the summer holidays. “The Swiss model distributes vacation days in smaller chunks throughout the year, which aims to limit learning loss. This provides a balanced rhythm between school days and vacations,” he said.

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