How to stay engaged with learning over the summer holidays

Benenden girls take part in the school's enquiry experience

David Cheshire, Head of Lower Sixth at Bede’s School

Everyone deserves a break sometimes. Some people don’t just deserve it, they need it. Young people whose every waking moment is dominated by thoughts of equations, sonnets or compounds, who push themselves to the last degree in terms of essay-writing, revision or wider reading simply must allow their young, still-developing brains to power down when the opportunity allows, for as long as they need to.

But for those of us whose approach is not quite so intensive, two months is a long time to be dormant. A student, or indeed a teacher, who has allowed themselves barely a moment’s thought of education during July and August is surely going to find it hard to grind through the academic gears in early September. As everyone knows, the ascent to Sixth Form study from GCSE is a demanding one; all the more so if zero mental preparation has been done.

Having selected their preferred A-level or BTEC subjects, students should be interested enough to look into that subject’s content, beyond GCSE, with unprompted curiosity – maybe even a mild tremor of excitement? After my own GCSEs, once I knew that English Literature, History and Politics were going to dominate the next two years of my life, I took it on myself to be better acquainted with some of those books I had heard of but not read, and the historical events and current affairs of which I had only the flimsiest grasp. As far as my own personal engagement with my learning was concerned, it helped enormously.

Each department at Bede’s will offer some advice about how best to warm up for their course. All will gently suggest some preliminary reading, possibly a few TED talks, and many will advocate something more active in the form of museum or theatre visits. Keeping eyes and ears open to cultural and intellectual happenings is vital.

My own more specific suggestion is to write. Review gigs or games, blog your political opinions, articulate your thoughts through poetry, analysis or humour.  It isn’t work, but it will keep your mind ticking over, ready you for the academic challenges to come, and help you enjoy a restful, fulfilling summer.

Lesley Tyler, Deputy Head, Academic, Benenden School

School exams are over by May half-term for 11 to 15-year-olds. This is followed by each year group having what we call an enquiry experience.

These include, for example, working with charities such as WaterAid and Nourish before putting together presentations of a charity’s marketing strategy to raise funds and awareness. Another year group, having visited the First World War battlefields, presented an idea for a memorial event or sculpture to a funding panel. The 13-year-olds spend a week post-exams in Austria, exploring salt mines, mountains, Mozart and the Sound of Music, looking at the Austrian heritage and economy.

The themes of these enquiry projects suffuse lessons in the remaining weeks of term and continue into the summer holidays, with students completing projects or undertaking extension reading on the summer term’s topics.

Students of all ages are set some reading and work over the holidays, with lists being supplied with the summer reports which are posted home. Students on two-year exam courses have set tasks to complete. There is a competition to reward the most voracious reader – and this includes staff! There are also summer photography and creative writing challenges, and we share a raft of national and local competitions and summer schools which students may be interested in.

Students of all ages are engaged in the Extended Project – a type of mini-university dissertation – and before they go on summer holiday, girls will be agreeing targets with their supervisors and conducting the major portion of their reading and research.

In the summer the majority of Year 12 students undertake their internships and work experience. This forms an important part of their Professional Skills Programme which complements their A-level study and prepares them for university and employment.

Even the departing 18-year-olds have some optional courses during the last week of term where they can choose from a qualification in teaching English as a foreign language, a food hygiene and preparation course, coding, and even an introduction to bar work, taught by a local hostelry!

But importantly, especially at a boarding school, we recognise the importance of spending halcyon days with family and friends, and really being able to relax and enjoy the summer. Whilst we emphasise that it is important to do enough to keep your brain ticking over and enjoy the time to read widely and undertake some research on a topic you are really interested in, it is also important to learn how to shut off from the pressures of work and just reflect, relax and be.

Olivia Upchurch, Head of Sixth Form, Brighton College

The summer holidays offer a chance for pupils to give free play to the passion that inspired their choice of particular A-levels. Photography students, for example, are asked to capture 20 to 40 analogue images to form the basis of a coursework project. They might be landscapes, portraits, views from a plane – the list is endless. It’s entirely up to the students themselves – we tell them, just enjoy it!

The long summer holidays are, well, so long that pupils at Brighton College are happy to take suggestions on interesting ways to keep brain cells stimulated – which also makes going back in August less of a shock! Brighton College was named the Sunday Times Independent School of the Year for 2019.

“We set up holiday reading competitions for pupils – such as ‘read yourself around the world’ with a reading passport,” says Jo-Anne Riley, our Deputy Head. “Reading widely – and reading what you feel like – is so important, more important than setting a fixed ‘reading list’ of academic works,” says Ms Riley.

Boarding house master Chris Fowler points language pupils towards selected foreign films and music ‘to enjoy a language rather than simply studying it’. And with new rules requiring insight into the contemporary world inhabited by a language, he also advises pupils to catch current affairs coverage in their chosen language.

Business Studies students are advised to hone their entrepreneurial insight by talking to family and friends about aspects of their business life such as revenue streams, while politics and government students can channel the famous ancient Chinese curse – ‘May you live in interesting times’ –  through tuning into the UK’s current heated political and social affairs via a host of free political podcasts the College suggests – then entering any debate with good arguments and gusto!

Julie Lodrick, Head Teacher, Kent College Pembury

The summer holidays should be about balance. Rest, relaxation and fun are equally as important as activities to keep children intellectually alert. Providing children with a range of activities that will stimulate and engage them will, in turn, provide them with thoughts and ideas for the year ahead. Learning a new skill could be the focus for the summer, which could also be a family project. For example, if your child is old enough, consider asking them to choose and plan a family trip.

Summer holidays should also be about letting individuality flourish, directing our mental curiosity in its own unique way. At Kent College, we find our girls return from their holidays with a new maturity and focus on their goals. Certainly in an age of constant stimulation from social media and instant digital information, opportunities to allow our minds time to have flashes of inspiration are becoming few and far between. As the poet W H Davies put it: life sadly leaves us little ‘time to stand and stare’ at the beauties of the natural world around us.

And what better for the long summer holiday than to have an outdoors project, where children can learn so much and have fun learning how to build a den or pond dipping. The Duchess of Cambridge made her design debut at the Chelsea Flower Show this year with a garden to encourage children to spend time outdoors.

As part of this, she has recently launched a competition with Blue Peter for a decorative garden sculpture to feature in a garden she designed at RHS Wisley. What a great competition for children to take part in. We know nature and the environment can have a really positive impact on childhood development and for older students, spending time outdoors is invaluable in helping to maintain good mental health and physical wellbeing.

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