Simple fix to keep learning spark' burning

By Terry Sarten

Like Eeyore's house in the Winnie the Pooh story, education policy has taken what was a bundle of sticks in one place, shifted them around, reassembled them in another and called it innovation. The pursuit of testing and performance measures is only one dimension of children's learning. Effective learning is essential for every child's well-being but statistics make it clear that, for many children, the system does not work.

Those who thrive on academic forms of learning can successfully navigate through the school system regardless of the quality of the learning environment.

For those without an academic mindset, learning can be a sequence of hurdles causing them to stumble and never really recover. The wagging of the "long tail" (those who pass through school and leave without even touching the sides) continues to dog education policy.

Every child has the learning spark but it can be snuffed out for a variety of reasons, many being outside the reach of education. Social inequality is widely agreed to be a key hindrance to achievement. Schools work hard at creating equal opportunity learning environments but, despite all the effort, the "long tail" remains firmly pinned to the rump of education.

One factor that countries like NZ should consider is reconfiguring the school year. We are in the middle of the summer holidays - six weeks with no school. A five-year study done in the US by Professor Karl Alexander, looked at inequalities influence on learning and found little difference in children from poorer and wealthier backgrounds in their first year at school but found by the fifth year the learning gap had expanded to become a chasm. Testing at the end of the first school year showed both groups doing well, with poorer children often outperforming those from wealthy homes. After the long summer holiday break, retesting highlighted remarkable differences. The children from wealthier homes scores went up, those from poor families went down with the gap growing ever wider over the five-year period.

This was attributed to access to holiday experiences that enhanced school learning for the wealthier families while the long summer break meant a loss of skills for those from poorer families.

The study concluded that school learning for many children is dented by the long summer break, with the resulting damage leaving them further behind with little scope to catch up.

To counter this effect, NZ should ditch the traditional long summer holidays and divide the year into blocks with regular two-week holiday breaks spread across 12 months. Children would benefit from the continuity, the school curriculum would not need to be crammed and pushed to fit the time available and teachers would get regular time off to recuperate from what is a difficult job.

The school holidays would then align more closely with workplace practice, creating potential for the work/life balance needed, especially by women (but also by men) as they juggle employment and parenting.

The same logic could be applied to universities but for different reasons.

Getting rid of the long summer break and running courses all year round would make it possible to complete a three-year degree in one and half years.

We would be more likely to keep graduates in NZ if they could enter the workforce sooner with less student debt.

Academic staff might baulk at the notion of losing their long holidays but aren't they actually "employed" by the students and subsidised by taxpayers through government funding?

Terry Sarten is a parent, social worker, writer and musician. Feedback email:

- Wanganui Chronicle

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