Posted by: Alexandre Borovik | May 26, 2008

The benefits of being left alone

According to BBC, The Institute for Public Policy Research said (see their report) studies suggested pupils’ reading and maths abilities regressed because the summer break was too long.

Ms Sodha [leading author of the report]report told BBC Radio 5 Live that the current structure of the school year was a relic from the time when children were needed to help out on family farms during the summer fruit-picking season.

She said there were two strong arguments for making a change.

“The first is that children regress with respect to their academic skills. Their reading and maths skills tend to decline when they’re away from school and this is particularly true for children from poorer backgrounds.”

It is another attack on an already fragile mathematical community: almost by default, mathematicians are developed from children who benefited from being left alone — and for longer, the better.

But let us forget about mathematically able children. Why educational policy is being based on the assumption that everything that is happening with a child at school is beneficial for him/her? I put forward a conjecture that academically weaker children are in even greater need of long uninterrupted periods off school — they are weaker because they are already damaged by poor education. They will benefit from a period of rest allowing them to lick their mental wounds, to heal neurosis, to relax muscles twitched by writing spasm.

Ms Sodha’s statement that “reading and maths skills tend to decline when they’re away from school” is a fallacy. School should prepare people for life, and long life, not for a test. The real skills attained are exactly those which are retained when a child is away from school. Of course, a child’s skills should decline over summer because they inevitably have a superficial, for-tomorrow’s-test component; but if they do not recover to a sustainable level during traditional autumnal revision period then this means that the child has not been properly taught in the first instance.

Summer vacation is like night sleep: we forget a lot from the day before, but this forgetting is necessary. Using computer terminology, night dream is defragmentation of our memory. Children need not only time to learn, they need time to forget, to defragment their minds.

P.S. A few words about “fruit-picking”. Yes, I came from another time and another place, and summer fruit picking (usually with immediate consumption of fruit) stays with me among my fondest memories from my long summer holidays.



  1. Agrees. my plan next year is to avoid school completely by going to China, do huge amount of math study on my own, and come back to us with a fake grade report(very easy to make…)… then continue to stay in US for my high school diploma… amazing plan…
    School is making me stupid. School is wasting my time. School teach me stuff I don’t need or already understand.

  2. Nice post. Although I did complain that 4 months holidays from university is too long, I see your point.

  3. I strongly suspect that the supposed in decline over the summer holidays is a direct effect of exams. Pupils are taught to the exam rather than the subject, and so do better in the exam than their understanding of the subject should allow (ie they know the exam not the subject). At the start of the year with the exam not quite so much in the forefront of thinking, and with the start of new topics that should build on the previous ones this lack of understanding becomes apparent. It is then blamed on forgetting over the summer rather than failures designed into the system.

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