How to Run a Successful Summer School

It was recently announced that, as part of a £1.7 billion investment by the government into educational catch-up, summer schools up and down the country would be given a share totalling £200m. With this funding, approximately 2,800 schools have signed up to partake in summer school schedules, with more than 500,000 students standing to benefit from extra tuition over the coming weeks.

In this article we will look at what a summer school really constitutes, how we can learn from previous successful summer schools and strategies that schools or trusts can implement to ensure ultimate engagement, participation, and academic progress.

What is Summer School?

How does summer school work? Well, it all depends on geography. While some nations such as Australia and New Zealand tend not to opt for any kind of educational summer programme, other nations such as America and Portugal, who tend to have longer holidays, supplement these breaks with dedicated summer schools and camps to ensure that the fabled learning gap is not too large at the beginning of the academic year.

In the UK, summer school is not a one size fits all approach and many primary or secondary providers will have different ways of educating their students across the summer months. Largely, however, there will be a combination of core curriculum such as english, maths and science, coupled with wellbeing activities from sport sessions and team games to arts-based endeavours such as productions and painting.

School playground for children with cloud chalkboard and toys illustrating how does summer school work

The summer is a pivotal time for students of all ages. Though many students would believe that in the blink of an eye all their freedom has disappeared and they are back in school, several studies show that children’s social and cognitive development are greatly affected during this period. A correct and measured summer intervention can therefore be crucial in mitigating learning losses which can often be alarming, based on socio-economic factors.

Summer school really is the ideal way to engage disenfranchised pupils up and down the country with educational games, physical activity, and teacher contact. In this year of all years, with many students having spent more time on zoom than in the local park, it is vital that we try to instil some semblance of normality within these young adults’ lives and spark educational curiosity in them. This, in turn, will hopefully extend to the start of term and beyond.

Yet, these academic ventures must be undertaken properly, and the benefits of summer school worldwide are certainly up for debate.

The Department for Education suggests that a student who attends summer school makes approximately two additional months of progress than those who do not. This is supported by the Education Endowment Foundations findings who also state that students could potentially make up to four-months added progress at a small and well-resourced summer school lead by experienced practitioners.

Project Reads researched the effect on students who were given learning opportunities akin to school lessons over the summer break versus students who were simply given basic prompts to read books during the holidays. Those who had structured intervention had far better comprehension levels upon return as opposed to those who were simply given books to read independently.

However, some studies suggest that the success of summer schools is predicated on the level of intervention and the demographic of the pupils who attend. In many cases it is agreed that the summer school cohort should be carefully selected based on socio-economic factors and must contain a strong academic arm. It seems that implementing a summer plan without a strong focus on study does not guarantee positive results on student learning and can end up having a detrimental effect on both pupils and teachers who have spent valuable time on a project without any clear aims.

On that note, we shall now examine how successful summer schools are run and what practices educators should follow, when planning one themselves.

Summer School Organisation

The organisation of a successful summer school is underpinned by three fundamentals: aims, location and staffing.

To begin with, aims. Your summer school programmes, irrespective of content, need to have clear aims and objectives and align with what the school wants to achieve during the academic year. The pastoral/academic balance must be struck early on to ensure students gain maximum benefit. Putting together a plan before summer school begins is imperative as ad-hoc lessons and poorly resourced activities will not benefit anyone.

It is clear from numerous studies that staffing should be considered carefully. It seems there is significant advantages of having regular schoolteachers from within your school/trust. Not only can new students get to know their teachers for the coming year, but these established members of staff also help to promote normality which has been lacking during the pandemic. While support staff and other members of the school community are pivotal to the summer school schedule from both an academic and pastoral perspective, having subject experts who have extensive experience in the classroom is vital to the success of the programme.

Location Location Location. For many planning summer school this answer is straightforward, the school. Unfortunately for a MAT this is more difficult as there are many campuses across different areas. One suggestion may be to create a summer school schedule across a trust where there are specialist programmes in different schools. This may mean some students do not have access to the entire summer school curriculum however, school transport may act as a workaround here. For many schools, hosting a summer school on premises means it is a lower cost than external venues and is easily accessed by most students. This allows time to be spent planning activities which are conducive to progress and will likely promote attendance (a topic which we shall discuss later).

Summer School Strategy

We have already discussed that a clear set of aims underpins the entire success of summer school, and this is echoed by aforementioned studies. These aims inform the strategy and there are several key areas to address if you want to reap the benefits of summer school.

Students who will benefit from Summer School

Fundamentally, the students who you choose for your summer school activities should not come from a random name generator. Your thought process needs to be considered here and you need to identify pupils across year groups who stand to gain the most from this additional education.

Identifying these pupils can be done in numerous ways but arguably the most advantageous of these is data. The data will provide clear evidence to school leaders, governors, and parents/guardians on why a particular student has been enrolled into the summer school schedule. Topics such as transition data from key stages, additional support required by way of PP, FSM or EAL and attendance data can all paint a picture of students who are not where they could or should be and how intervention can ensure they do not fall further below the progress curve. To supplement this data, knowledge from teachers within the current school or feeder schools will help to ascertain who will stand to gain the most. Additionally, advice from learning support assistants, SENCOs or parents will give a holistic view of those students most in need and the unique challenges or areas of weakness which will need to be addressed.

Female High School Students Wearing Uniform Using Interactive Whiteboard During summer school programme

Smaller Classrooms

In an ideal world, all teachers would be able to work with smaller classes but we know that in reality, this is far from the case. Nonetheless, a summer school programme is far more likely to be successful if smaller classes can be facilitated. This allows more time with individuals and a greater ability to differentiate instruction based on students’ needs. Summer school lesson plans can provide a general overview of where each student in the class needs to get to but with tailored instruction and more allotted time for individuals, these tasks become a great deal easier.

Summer School Curriculum

On the topic of lesson plans, summer school activities need to make sense from the school’s perspective. The curriculum needs to compliment the body of work students will be completing during the academic year. It is highly unlikely that all students from a particular cohort will be in attendance which means that exposure to a lot of the core knowledge would not only give these pupils an unfair advantage over their peers, it would also disrupt teaching patterns moving into term time.

Prioritising Summer School Subjects

One of the best summer school ideas is to prioritise subject areas, and these might not necessarily be ones you would expect. While the core subjects are always important in a summer school programme, lessons such as art drama and P.E. are crucial, as many of your pupils will not have had either the resources or space to exercise their creative muscles while confined to their bedrooms, nor will many of them have had the required exercise for young adults (many of them opting instead for 6-hour sessions of Fortnite). Pupil wellbeing and fitness should not go undersold and summer school activities should certainly include recreational activities and team games as these will have been severely lacking from many of your children’s lives.

Teacher Taking Exercise Class In School Gym During summer school programmes

Year 7 Transition

This strategy is based on the students selected for your summer school programme, but one area which has been effective for many in the past has been to introduce a selection of new Year 7 pupils to the school. This may not work for a Multi Academy Trust but certainly holds benefit for a school which is holding its summer school on their own grounds. Pupils, again selected by data, can get acclimatised to all things secondary school including school buildings, routines, staff and classmates prior the start of term. For those students struggling to bridge the gap between KS2 and KS3, this may give them a vital leg up and prevent them from being disengaged and overwhelmed come the beginning of the academic year.

The Nuffield Foundation highlighted that extended induction arrangements such as summer school promote a successful transition between schools which often correlates with a positive academic performance. The Department for Education also found that successful summer school programmes helped disadvantaged KS2 leavers familiarise themselves with their new environment and inspired academic confidence.

Summer School Assessment

Not the word that any student wants to hear, particularly in the summertime. Assessment is a crucial summer school activity which provides teachers with some measurables on how well their pupils have progressed. This does not necessarily have to be a drawn-out formative process and some of the assessment can certainly be summative. However, to ascertain whether the summer school has been a success and to build on these foundations for future summer schools, it is important to know whether students have made progress and if there are still areas for development. One strategy could be to have assessments at the beginning of summer school as a benchmark and this can then be measured against at the end of your programme with a second and similar assessment. To ensure your summer school is a worthwhile endeavour, this really is a must.

Pastoral Care

Though I have already alluded to the importance of the pastoral element of summer school, it may be seen as more important than any of the above strategical pointers. A successful summer school needs to support both the social and emotional needs of all pupils.

The theory behind ‘Summer Strain’ highlights the stress and mental health concerns that continue to affect young people’s lives, and these are heightened by the lack of structure during the summer months. This should not be conflated with the summer slump which is based on academic losses which will be addressed through curriculum planning.

The pupils you will be selecting for summer school will, in general, have greater social and emotional needs than the ‘average’ student. These needs have since been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic and this is evidenced by teen health care claims across the UK which have risen substantially over the past two years. Young girls, members of the LGBTQ community and minority racial or ethnic groups have been particularly affected and while the sole responsibility is not on schools to remedy these problems, summer school is certainly a good starting point.

Teacher Helping Female High School Student Working at Screen In Computer Class

Putting the emphasis on a strong pastoral element to the summer school programme gives pupils an opportunity to develop self-efficacy, resilience and relationships through team building and problem-solving activities. These can be across different subjects and may even involve a trip within summer school. Overall, it is fair to assume that many of your pupils’ emotional needs will have been neglected even more without the continued structure and normality of school life and summer school can start to mend some of those wounds. If you are struggling to come up with ideas on how to do this or do not have a strong pastoral bias within your teaching staff, then Public Health England’s School Zone has a range of teaching resources to support children’s health and wellbeing.

Summer School Attendance

Attendance. Something schools up and down the country have had to contend with over the last couple of years. One of the benefits of summer school, if well structured, is to reduce the longer-term impact of the pandemic and reengage pupils who have been persistently absent in recent times. This is particularly relevant with vulnerable pupils who may not have had tools to access school remotely and who are at risk of being permanent absentees.

Again, one of the key steps to take here aligns with the previous point on selecting the right students. Attendance was mentioned here, and it is vital that students are also chosen based on their propensity to miss school during term time. Naturally, these students will be further behind than others anyway and, couple this with socio-economic disadvantages, this really is a recipe for poor progress.

Once these students have been invited, they need to be further encouraged to attend through enrichment activities and academic content. One of the key drivers here, should be to market this as different to school where children get to experience practical real-life learning with activities and trips which will reduce the stigma of this being an exercise in textbooks and classrooms. Going to summer school should be exciting to these students and the success of the programme is dependent on kids feeling enthusiastic by the prospect of going.

Parents and guardians also play a key role in students going to summer school and this communication needs to be on point to maximise attendance. Formal invitations letters are an effective way of showing the exclusivity of summer school and position their child being chosen as a positive thing. In these letters you can explicitly state why their child has been chosen and why you believe the summer school activity will be of huge benefit to them.

Follow-up phone calls, text messages or even visits from parents to summer school are a really good way to promote visibility for parents and guardians and can make them feel more included on their child’s journey across summer school. This dual commitment can only be a positive for the child and will encourage them to attend, knowing that two of the key circles of influence in their lives, school and guardians, are pulling in the same direction.

Inevitably, some summer school students will still slip through the net, and it is good to have a dedicated member of staff on hand to closely monitor attendance and make contact with parents to understand why students may be absent or late. If a culture of truancy begins then this may be difficult to arrest. Before summer school begins, having clear expectations of timings and procedures if there is illness or extenuating circumstances is key and should be provided to parents and guardians in plenty of time.

School kids running in elementary school hallway during summar school, front view

As an aside, if there is the scope to expand your summer school then you may want to consider an online presence for students who might just miss the cut. It may not be as intensive as an on-premises summer school, nonetheless sites like the Oak National Academy and Teach First Ambassadors have got a host of online resources which are more than adequate summer provision for students to keep their brains active during the summer slump.

Summer School Timings

We’ve managed to discuss all of these strategies for an effective summer school programme and have not once discussed timings.

There are several studies purporting to know exactly when to hold a summer school and many of these are contradictory. The general consensus though, would be to hold summer school activities for between one and two weeks including outdoor sports, creative subjects and core subjects such as english and maths. A study conducted by the American educator suggested that at least 70 hours of contact time were required to create an effective summer school programme, but with only six weeks available and limited resources compared to term time, a two-week maximum seems reasonable for both students and staff, alike.

Now I’m not professing to know everything about summer school. While I have taken part in my fair share, I would suggest there are positives and negatives to all the different types, which I shall highlight below:

  • Once assessment is completed after a couple of weeks it allows staff to mine data and target other effective areas of intervention, moving forward.
  • Starting early provides ample time for a break afterwards and still shortens the summer slump considerably.
  • Information will still be fresh in the student’s heads meaning that getting sessions up and running may be less arduous.

Middle of Summer – Benefits

  • Optimum time to ensure least amount of academic disruption. Arguably the most effective time to bridge the gap with an equal amount of holiday either side and minimise summer slump.
  • Provides staff and students with a break to process the year before and after to reflect on how summer school went, as well as next steps for the academic year.

End of Summer - Benefits

  • Allows pupils to get back into their rhythms and routines which have been missing for a few weeks. It acts as a halfway home between the summer holidays and term time which will allow students to adjust more easily.
  • It provides teachers with a well-earned break at the end of the summer term having presided over stressful exam period.
  • This year, there are likely to be less restrictions towards the end of the summer which should help bolster attendance with parents and guardians likely more willing to send their children in to school.

Summer School Summary

Overall, summer school programmes should be seen as a necessity for most schools across the country. While they may sometimes be difficult logistically, require a chunk of the school’s budget and eat into that well deserved holiday for both students and staff, they can provide tangible benefit to many students both academically and socially. When schools are measured almost exclusively on results, these summer schools are vital in preventing knowledge gaps and stemming the summer slump. Additionally, many of these programmes will provide a safe haven for students who dread the summer holidays and cannot wait to return to normality and structure come term time. Not only are they beneficial for the school in terms of progress, but they are also beneficial for students engaging with peers, building relationships with staff and feeling like a valued member of the school community.

13 August 2021 / Rory Haynes