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The U.K’s experiment with summer learning

Britain's Education Secretary Michael Gove has introduced changes to the country's educational system.


An ambitious summer school program by the British government is just the latest in a series of reforms, many controversial, the U.K. government is using to address its concern that the country is falling behind in educational standards.

To tackle the issues, the coalition government headed by David Cameron has embarked on a sweeping series of measures since taking office in 2010. They include spending $3-billion on extra funding for at-risk students as well as overhauling the national curriculum and national exams to make them tougher.

Perhaps most controversially, the government has allowed more than 2,500 state schools to become "academies." They are funded directly by the central government, instead of local authorities, and have almost complete control over staff hiring, school hours and budgets. In another twist, the government has allowed the creation of so called "free schools", institutions set up by just about anyone which also operate largely on their own. So far there are 81 free schools and 200 are expected to open in the coming year. Critics say academies and free schools are too independent and cater more to middle and high-income neighbourhoods, leaving poorer kids further behind. The government argues these schools are more innovative and flexible and will address fears the gap between private and state schools is widening, leaving the country with a two-tiered system of education.

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Yet few argue with the popularity of the summer school program – although there are questions about whether it is doing much academically. The initiative was launched to boost literacy and numeracy among disadvantaged children and ease the transition from primary to secondary school. This is the second summer of the program and nearly 2,000 schools and 65,000 students are taking part.

At Chase High, in Westcliff-on-Sea, about 55 kilometres east of London, enrolment in this year's six-week course has nearly doubled from last year to 358. The school is offering 40 courses including photography, dance, cooking, science, geography, fashion and a host of sports activities. There's also a two-week transition program for new students enrolling in September from the local primary schools. The courses are all free and run from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily.

Janice Amar has a 12-year-old daughter in the program, Avia. The summer school has been invaluable, Ms. Amar says. Last summer, Avia was in the transition course because she felt extremely anxious about moving on to secondary school (in Britain, primary schools are for ages 4 to 11, secondary schools are ages to 11 to 16 and sixth form up to 18).

"The thought of going into high school was the most daunting experience of her life," Ms. Amar recalled. The summer course boosted her confidence, which carried over through the school year. "There has been a massive difference in my daughter in the past year," she said. Avia enjoyed the courses so much she's heading back this year along with her older brother Thom, who will be working as a volunteer.

Experts have long extolled the virtues of summer school, saying it can help make up for what many call the "summer slide," when students lose ground particularly in their reading and math skills over the days off. And that can be devastating later on in school. According to Britain's Department for Education, about one-third of at-risk students score an average C grade on their national exams for the General Certificate of Secondary Education, or GCSE, which are all completed by age 16. That compares to 62 per cent of other students. In addition, less than 60 per cent of disadvantaged students score the expected levels in English and math by the end of primary school, compared with 78 per cent of other pupils.

Scott Davies, a sociologist at McMaster University in Hamilton, has spent two years studying summer school programs at 37 Ontario school boards involving students from grades one to three. The study tested summer school students before and after the program and compared the results with those who did not take the program. The results showed summer students gained on average two months of literacy skills on their peers. "Results indicated minimized levels of summer learning loss, increases in literacy learning and narrowing of achievement gaps for a majority of students," said the study. "Students also became more confident and more engaged in reading."

Dr. Davies said the next challenge is to see if the summer boost is long lasting. "We've been able to demonstrate these relatively short-term gains over about a three or four month period, and so just this year we're starting what we are calling a longitudinal study where we are going to follow up a select group of kids over three years," he said in an interview.

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Vice-principal Sean Egan is already seeing positive results at his high school, Nightingale Academy, in a tough part of London. Nightingale offered a four-week summer school program for the first time last summer and aimed it at incoming primary-school students who had scored below average on literacy tests. "As a secondary school, if a student comes in below [average] through national percentages and school percentages, they are unlikely to turn that grade into a C or above at GCSC," he said. "We're actually doing a lot of work tracking their progress as a cohort. For us, what was really powerful, in November we ran tests on the students and it literally showed that the students who did attend the summer program did improve their reading from those who didn't."

Nightingale is running the program again this summer and 160 students have enrolled, up from 150 last year.

Not everything is going smoothly. Britain's Office for Standards in Education, Ofsted, inspected 70 schools last fall and raised concerns about the summer school program.

"Generally, summer schools appeared to be at an early stage of development and overall were not seen to be making a meaningful impact for disadvantaged pupils," Ofsted said in its report on the inspection. It added that while the summer school program was introduced "with the best of intentions," "our survey work suggests that take up has to date been patchy and there is evidence of poor targeting of places and weak liaison between secondary and primary schools." And it recommended that some of the summer-school funding go instead toward extra support during the school year for poorer first-year secondary students.

But mothers like Alison Yarnold, who has two sons attending the Chase High summer program this year for the second time, has a simple way to measure the success of summer school. Both her boys, she said, "didn't mind going to school in the holidays."

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