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Dublin: 17 °C Tuesday 2 September, 2014

Column: Reducing school holidays would help students, parents and the economy

More time in school would help students and teachers to tackle areas of underachievement in our education system – like mathematics, science and second language proficiency, writes Colm Bergin.

Colm Bergin

TEACHERS HELP TO lay the foundation for any ambitious country. They deserve to be well paid and respected considering the important role they have in our society and the trust they are given. However it is difficult to justify the length of the secondary school summer holidays in Ireland, no matter how highly you respect the work teachers do.

Teachers, and students, in Ireland have a 12 week summer holiday which is much higher than many of our European neighbours including the UK, Germany and the Netherlands which have an average of seven-and-a-half weeks summer holidays between them. To justify keeping teachers’ salaries at their current level, the Government should look to extend the number of days in school by four weeks (20 days). It is without doubt that this will benefit many strands of Irish society in the medium to long term.

More time to study

The main beneficiaries of the extension would be the students and these benefits could be measured two-fold. Firstly, with the extension of the school year, students will have more time to study which would enable them to get a better grasp on their studies.

In a recent interview with the New York Times, Chris Gabrieli of the US National Centre on Time and Learning put it best when he said: “It’s not as simple as ‘Oh, if we just went 12 hours every day every kid would be Einstein’…On the other hand, the more time you spend practising or preparing to do something, the better you get at it”. This is a fundamental theory of education and one that is sometimes overlooked in our education system.

Secondly, students will benefit as they will have less time away from their studies. A lengthy period of time away from school has been shown to have a negative effect on students’ learning outcomes, and this seems to be especially true for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. A shorter gap could really help students in a meaningful way without changing the curriculum that is already in place.

Parents would also be major beneficiaries of an increase in days spent in the classroom. Parents often have to incur extra costs when their children are on summer holidays, because they have to pay for summer camps, baby sitters or take unpaid leave. This puts a huge financial burden on parents, many of whom are already struggling. A reduction in summer holidays by 20 days would lead to a decrease in costs for parents, as they would not have to pay for extra childcare or take as much unpaid leave because their children would be in school.

Second language proficiency

The Irish economy would also reap the rewards if this strategy was implemented. Ireland is currently ranked 26th in the world Maths and 14th in the world in Science by the OECD and only 40 per cent of the population are proficient in a second language. When compared to the Netherlands which has a seven week summer holiday, whose ranking in Maths and Science are 6th and 8th respectively and whose population have a 94 per cent proficiency in a second language, a stark picture can be painted.

Any extra time in the classroom can be used to focus on these vital subjects and would undoubtedly help the Irish economy in terms of competitiveness and innovation. While there are many different factors that impact these subjects – such as quality of instruction and class size – the face-to-face contact with the teacher would be equally as important and, in most cases, would complement the other initiatives that could be introduced to tackle our underachievement.

Needless to say there would be political pressure from the teachers unions if such a measure was attempted to be implemented. The Government could however, work with the unions to ensure that it was implemented as seamlessly as possible. It could be more palatable for the unions if the lengthening of the school year was implemented over a period of time rather than it all added in a single year. They could term the extension out over a period of four years with a week being added each year.

If Ireland were to have its school year extended by 20 days then it would be able to compete on the world stage with a highly educated and highly capable workforce. It would benefit the economy, the parents, and of course the students themselves.

This increase of time spent in school coupled with other initiatives such as Project Maths would benefit everyone in the long term and would help lay the foundations which Ireland could build on tomorrow.

Colm Bergin has experience in both politics and public policy having worked in New York, Brussels and Washington DC. He is a graduate of Government and Public Policy at UCC and holds a Diploma in Law from the IPA.

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