Friday, 20 August 2010

Is the summer bad for your child's brain?


I had this article published in the Times earlier this week - it's about the so-called "summer slide" and what you can do about it.
You can see it on the Times site:

However, the article was cut somewhat, so I thought I'd put it on here in all its glory! I really think this is an interesting topic, that there's a danger some parents might try to stuff their children full of lessons all summer, while others (whose children really need to keep up with their reading, for example) do nothing.

Here you are:

By Sarah Ebner

School’s out. The holidays stretch before us and more learning is unlikely to be near the top of your children’s summer to-do list. Well, perhaps it’s time for them –and us - to think again. Don’t you know that the summer can damage your child’s brain?
I write the Times education blog, School Gate, and in the last few weeks I’ve been inundated with suggestions for ways to stop your child falling behind over the summer break. Carol Vorderman has launched her own online maths summer schools, recommending that children (aged five and over) “forge ahead with 15 minutes of fun practice a day”. She’s joined by Maths-Whizz, which offers a similar way to “beat summer learning loss” and education site MyChild, which has its own summer camp. It’s “packed with fun learning activities for each week of the summer holidays” as well as worksheets. It’s enough to make a parent paranoid.
“If you’re not being stimulated, you’re going to forget things,” says Amy Schofield, editor of MyChild. “You need to keep the brain active.”
Summer learning loss is something of a new phenomenon. It hit the headlines last year when Johns Hopkins University in America published research suggesting that schoolchildren lost an average of two months learning over the summer holidays. This was if parents failed to keep them “mentally active.”
Of course the issue does make some sense. If we adults didn’t work for six weeks, we would also probably fall behind. But we are talking about children here. Don’t they need some time off?
“My feeling is that kids do need occupying, but not like this,” says Annie Ashworth, co-author of the Madness of Modern Families. “They have a lot of intensive work throughout the year and I know that mine, for example, are exhausted by the time the summer comes. Perhaps they should read occasionally so they don’t forget how to do it. But I don’t think advanced maths is the way forward.”
Of course it was all very different in our day. Six weeks might have been filled with a short holiday, perhaps a summer camp, and lots of trips to the park and seeing friends. Now parents are being told sternly that this isn’t enough and that we’re failing our kids if we don’t keep the learning going. So should we worry? Annie Ashworth isn’t convinced.
“These stories of summer learning loss just add to parental guilt,” she says.
And even though she’s keen to promote her e-learning summer camp, Amy Schofield admits that the brain drain is new to her.
“We didn’t hear anything about it when we were kids”, she admits. “Now we’re all really child-centred and neurotic. There’s an emphasis on learning, learning, learning all the time.”
Dylan Wiliam [NB: correct spelling of Wiliam] is professor of educational assessment at the Institute of Education. He says that summer learning loss does exist, but that we need to keep it in perspective.
“There is no doubt that children learn stuff in school and forget it when they’re not in school,” he says. “There is a dip. But when it comes to seeing how serious that is and how quickly a child can make it up, then that’s a very difficult question to answer.”
Professor Wiliam also points out that most of the research on this issue is from the United States, where they have much longer summer holidays. “That definitely makes a difference,” he says.
The issue of “summer learning loss” began gathering momentum in 1992 when a group of students at Johns Hopkins tutored pupils from Baltimore public schools during the summer. The project was a great success and boosted the students’ reading scores.
At the same time, numerous academics were writing about the “summer slide” whereby academic skills dropped over the summer months. They discovered that this appeared to affect low-income students disproportionately, so widening the gap between richer and poorer.
“There are some people who allege that almost the entire difference between the performance of disadvantaged and advantaged children aged 18 is down to summer learning loss,” says Professor Wiliam. “But it also depends on the kind of curriculum you follow. If you’re talking about shallow learning, remembering facts and dates, then a child probably will forget those over a long break.”
However, what’s particularly interesting about the research is that reading aptitude seems to drop the most. This is, of course, something which parents could easily address themselves simply by encouraging their children to read over the summer or taking them to the library. It’s not really rocket science….
Tim Gill, author of No Fear: Growing Up in a Risk Averse Society, agrees. He’s horrified by the idea of summer learning and also unhappy because he feels that the issue is tied up with merchandising (Carol Vorderman’s Summer School package, for example costs a minimum of £12,99).
“No one makes money if more kids go to the park and play with other kids,” says Gill. “Children need time for themselves over the summer and especially out of doors. This is just market opportunities – latching onto anxieties and amplifying them.
“I don’t want to tell other parents how to do their job,” adds Gill, “but I just wonder who’s fuelling this. Who is looking at our kids and saying ‘wow they need more worksheets?
“It’s unquestionable that some children need more support for the basics. But the irony is that these online summer schools or worksheets are going to be done by the sharp elbowed middle classes.”
In Newhaven on the South Coast, Christine Terrey [NB: correct spelling of Terrey] runs Grays Nursery and Infant School. It’s a school which has many pupils eligible for free school meals and a high number with special needs. There aren’t many sharp elbowed middle classes to be found here. And yet the school’s learning programme has been a big success.
“I think that most schools are aware that over the summer break, children slip back in their learning,” says Terrey, who’s been headteacher at Grays for the last five years. “We’d just never investigated how much.”
Two years ago, Terrey decided to look into the matter and assessed the children before the school broke up in July and again on their return in September. She was shocked by her findings - twenty two children had a summer learning loss in reading, sixteen in writing and twelve in maths.
Terrey and her staff realised that some children weren’t looking at a book for the entire summer. “We decided we weren’t giving parents enough guidance,” she says. “Things had to change.”
The first innovation was lending school library books over the holidays. The second was to set up the Summer Fun Learning Challenge. This involved putting special pages on the school’s internet learning platform, adding links to other useful sites and recommending that children make their own scrapbooks of what they’d got up to over the break.
“Every child who made a scrapbook got a certificate, as did everyone who logged on,” says Terrey. “I saw a lot of movement on the site in August, which was great. We had no sanctions for those who didn’t get involved, only rewards and praise for those who did.”
The results were impressive. Last September, only seven children had a summer learning loss in reading, eight in writing and five in maths. Terrey is hoping for even better results this year.
“There’s always been an issue with summer learning loss,” she says firmly. “Children fall behind when they’re not doing anything. The problem is that schools didn’t know how to measure it and haven’t always planned good ways of dealing with it.”
So parents, try to make sure your children pick up a book this summer or do something else to stimulate their brains. But don’t worry too much. They’re unlikely to fall disastrously behind if times tables aren’t practised daily.
“I’m very resistant to this idea that, as parents, our job is to expend every last sinew of sweat in getting that extra grade,” says Tim Gill. “Children need time and space on their own. That’s how they are given the chance to become real people.”