EEF Blog: Summer schools – what the evidence tells us and what it doesn’t

With the government announcement around summer provision to support children’s learning recovery following the past year’s Covid disruption, it is important to consider what the evidence tells us about the impact of summer schools, writes the EEF's head of policy, Jonathan Kay.

The headline figures

The overall academic impact of summer schools, according to the EEF Toolkit, is the equivalent of an additional +2 months’ progress for pupils that attend, compared with pupils who do not. Summer schools are appealing because they are underpinned by a clear theory of change – more time in school leads to more learning.

The figure is positive. But it is lower than other approaches, such as small-group tuition (+4 months’ additional progress) or ensuring pupils receive high-quality feedback (+8 months). It is also expensive to do well.

Summer schools, then, occupy the awkward space of being the type of intervention that may not be recommended in normal times or for general use of Pupil Premium funding – but that can make a positive difference to pupil attainment.

Given the headline figure is small and not necessarily cost-effective, it is crucial that we consider the evidence on what’s needed for summer schools to support pupils’ learning and wellbeing. Looking at the individual studies behind the EEF Toolkit’s overall average can give us some important insights into the challenges and opportunities of running a successful summer school.

Attainment or something else?

A key thing schools need to consider is the aim of any summer provision. The figure in the EEF Toolkit focuses on academic attainment, but there are lots of other important activities that might be valuable this summer. Our Christmas charity appeal in partnership with the Sunday Times, for example, focused on supporting schools to stay open for a range of holiday activities beyond formal learning, such as sports activities, family ‘cook and eat’ sessions, dance and dramas, painting kits and gardening projects, as well as educational day trips.

If the aim this year, however, is to support learning recovery, then it is crucial that there is a clear academic component. The highest attainment impacts (+4 months) from summer schools have been from those which have included small-group tuition with a trained teacher. Light-touch academic interventions, such as summer reading lists, have been found not to have high impacts on academic attainment. Schools need to carefully consider what their pupils need over the summer and target support accordingly.

Pupil engagement

Perhaps the biggest challenge identified by the evidence is getting pupils to attend summer schools. There is widespread evidence on the difficulty of engaging pupils – particularly from disadvantaged backgrounds. The two trials of summer school programmes funded by the EEF struggled to sign up children and then to keep them engaged for the duration of the programme.

Our trial of the Future Foundations summer school found:

Despite considerable efforts from the developers, a significantly smaller number of pupils attended the school than had been hoped for, with less than half of the target number of pupils signing up for the programme. A number of pupils also dropped-out once the programme had started.

If schools are going to put on summer provision, a key consideration will be how to target and engage the pupils who could benefit most. What will be needed to try and make sure that the pupils who have struggled most while not able to attend school normally will take up your offer of summer provision and make the most of it?

What does the evidence not tell us?

A key question to ask about any research at the moment is how transferable the evidence is to current circumstances. Clichés about “unprecedented times” aside, there are good reasons to think that the results from previous trials of summer schools may not be perfectly applicable to the context we find ourselves in today.

It could be that the evidence of learning loss will make it easier to engage pupils with summer learning provision - after all, there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that pupils are keen to be back in school. Or it could, of course, go the other way and, after a year of lockdowns and restrictions, children and families will want to spend the summer socialising with friends outside the structure of a summer school. The evidence can flag the risk of low engagement, but it cannot offer us guarantees either way.

The importance of teachers

An important consideration of any summer provision is teachers. None of the studies in the EEF Toolkit have tracked the impact of summer provision on teacher burnout - even if they had, we certainly could not assume the research would be applicable to the experiences of teachers this year.

Not only have schools remained open throughout the pandemic, but for much of this academic year teachers have had to prepare an exhausting mix of lessons both for the live classroom as well as for remote teaching. Summer is a time when teachers will not only want a well-deserved break, but also when they will begin preparing their lessons for the year to come.

It is heartening that schools have been given the opportunity to decide the appropriate level of summer support. Teachers make the biggest difference to academic outcomes and high-quality teaching is the thing that will do most to improve pupil outcomes over the next academic year and beyond. There is no ‘quick fix’ for learning recovery from Covid-disrupted schooling and it will certainly not be solved over the summer. Schools are best placed to consider the needs of their pupils and their teachers, and will want to consider how much, if any, summer provision is consistent with successful planning for the following school year.