Let’s stop talking about summer learning loss

By Kate Kelly
Published 20 Oct 2021

Are concerns about learning loss misplaced when it comes to the summer break? Kate Kelly and Katy Finch discuss the value of experiential learning.

Some debates in education come around time and time again. They seem to follow the ebbs and flows of the school calendar and one that rears its head every September concerns the supposed learning loss resulting from the long summer.

Teachers welcoming their classes back in the autumn term may observe a decline in their students’ spelling test scores, or find that some students struggle to re-engage with reading texts they breezed through in June. By October half-term, however, most children are likely to be back in the swing of school life, even as debates on the impact of ‘lost’ learning continue.

Concerns around learning loss became particularly pertinent during the pandemic, with schools closed to most students for months at a time. However, we need to be careful when comparing the usual and often highly anticipated, summer break with the significant interruptions caused by Covid-19. The nature of the time away from school was different and we should expect the effects to be different too.

A different type of learning

Perhaps we can think about the summer holiday as an opportunity for a different type of learning – one that supports a child to develop outside of the structure of school life. But while it might be easy to see the learning benefit for students who spend the summer travelling, visiting museums and exploring art galleries, it’s important to recognise the merits of other types of activities.

Summer holiday clubs can teach collaboration, build character and foster creativity. Time spent with extended family and older relatives can also play a valuable role. There’s increasing work into intergenerational learning that highlights the potential value of encouraging and nurturing such interactions.

If we acknowledge the value of the summer break, the September regression can be seen as a time to switch modes between the experiential learning of the summer and the classroom learning of the autumn. Just as children may need time to shift their focus after PE or art before they can approach maths or English, they may also need time to shift from family-based and independent experiences to the structure of the school day.

The impact of lockdowns

This is why we must take care to distinguish between learning loss associated with the summer and the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. Lockdowns didn’t just remove students from school, they disconnected us all from the wider world and cut us off from our extended families. A recent report from the Nuffield Foundation highlights just how difficult life has been for many families during the pandemic, with individuals balancing childcare, home schooling and work commitments without any access to their usual support networks. This experience has been a far cry from the usual summer break.

We must also remember that there are students for whom absence from school is a bigger challenge. It’s clear that for some children, the summer holidays are not a time of relaxation and enjoyment. School provides them with structure and security, as well as access to resources and free school meals, all of which can have an incredibly positive influence on their lives. For these students, pandemic-related school closures, or time away from class when bubbles were isolating, may also have had a much bigger effect.

Understanding next steps

The impact of Covid-19 on the education and wellbeing of all students is something we'll be unpicking for generations to come. Research is already under way around the world and at AQA we have our own programme of work contributing to this, to understand the impact and decipher the next steps for schools, universities, teachers and students.

But as we settle back in to the autumn term, let’s not forget that learning can come in all shapes and sizes and is not something that only happens at school. Teachers are already under enough pressure to ensure students ‘catch up’ after the Covid-19 closures and it seems unnecessary to add to their concerns as they try to focus their students – and themselves – on the challenges of the new school year.

This article was originally published in Schools Week.



Dr Katy Finch

Dr Katy Finch

Lead Researcher

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