x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Everyone's ready for summer break to end

Students, parents and teachers are eager for classes to start after break that will stretch to 114 days for some because of Ramadan.

Pristine Fujimaki learns about geography on a map at home during the summer months.
Pristine Fujimaki learns about geography on a map at home during the summer months.

ABU DHABI // Five-year-old Pristine Fujimaki is not usually prone to temper tantrums. But after what felt like an endless and lonely summer holiday cooped up indoors, and missing her playmates, trips to the park and school Pristine has had a few bouts of screaming and crying, said her mother, Grace.

Mrs Fujimaki wonders whether school holidays in the UAE are too long. And she is not alone. "We are not used to seeing her have tantrums because it rarely ever happens," Mrs Fujimaki said. "But suddenly, she was fed up at home, crying, 'I want someone to play with me! I don't like being alone, alone, alone!'" Every morning when she wakes up, she asks her mother, "Is it a school day yet?" Pristine will return to Star International School in Dubai on September 6, 79 long days after her last school year ended. For parents working 12-hour days, six days a week, that is a long time to keep an only child occupied.

"I think that here in the UAE, the school holiday is too long. I sometimes wonder how can the kids here compare to other kids of the same level in other countries," said Mrs Fujimaki. "Every day I try to get her to do different things, like practice her cursive writing after dinner or doing maths problems at home and practising reading out loud. I print out activities for her from the internet to work on. She can count and we practise multiplication."

These activities, Mrs Fujimaki said, are crucial to keeping Pristine occupied and ensuring she is ready for first grade without having forgotten everything she has learnt over the long summer. The hot climate, which makes it difficult for children of Pristine's age to take part in outdoor activities, forces many families to head abroad for the summer, taking their children with them. That leaves children like Pristine with no friends to play with, and it adds to the frustration of a long summer holiday.

The break is even longer for students in state schools and private schools following the state curriculum, where the start of classes has been delayed until after Ramadan. Those students will be out of school for 114 days, from June 1 until September 23. The Ministry of Education has released no information on how it will make up for days lost to the late start. There are 155 instructional days in the typical state school year, the ministry estimates, well below international averages. Singapore has 200 days, and the US and Australia each have 190 days.

Dr Peggy Blackwell, dean of education at Zayed University, says although there is no specific research in the UAE on the effect of the summer break on retention of information and achievement, research in the US has found that "the longer the summer break, the greater the loss of content knowledge" in students. "This is of course dependent on what happens during the summer, what does the family do, what does the child do, is there any effort by the family to continue keeping the child involved in reading and mathematics," Dr Blackwell said.

"But working parents don't have enough time to spend with their children, and the children are playing video games and watching TV and certainly not thinking about reading or solving maths problems." One way to overcome this, said Dr Blackwell, is a summer school programme, if that is affordable, or exercising children's brains through informal learning, such as using money and working out recipes to get children to learn basic mathematics. "Another factor in the retention," Dr Blackwell said, "is how many hours and how many weeks are the children actually on task with instructional time in a school?"

Instructional time does not take into account lunch breaks, recesses, test revision and preparation and so on, but the actual time where a child is actively learning in a school environment. Because the school day in the UAE is just five hours (including a 30-minute recess), students in state schools spend only 22.5 hours a week in class. That is below the international average of 27 hours a week.

The Abu Dhabi Education Council (Adec) announced in its 10-year strategic plan in June that the school day in the emirate would be extended by 90 minutes for students in state high schools, and that the school year itself would be lengthened by 10 days for primary and secondary grades in public schools, to bring the academic year up to 165 days. "The point is not about keeping kids in school for longer hours, but giving them more time with their teachers," an Adec spokesman said.

Teachers also oppose a long summer holiday, although that would mean less time off for them. Ahmad Aref, an English language teacher and department supervisor at Al Shorooq Private School in Jumeirah, said the long summer break made his job harder at the start of the school year. "We spend the first few weeks revising with the students and reteaching them information they should already know," Mr Aref said.

"This really applies for all ages, because in the summer, children go into playing mode, staying up late and not picking up a single book and not learning anything new, or honing any of the skills they already learnt. It is very frustrating for us teachers." Mona Faraj, a marketing director at a hotel in the capital, said that for a working parent, the long summer holidays were a nightmare, and news that this year's summer holiday would be prolonged was "terrible".

"By the time school starts again, my son will have been at home for almost five months," said Mrs Faraj, whose four-year-old, Hani, finished nursery school on May 7. "I know, from all my friends who are parents, that the summer holidays are frustrating for them. We all work, and having our kids at home, and not always engaging in healthy activities, is hard for us because we cannot be with them." Some schools started the 2009-2010 academic year yesterday, with more slated to open on September 6. By September 23, all of the UAE's youngsters will be back in a classroom, and many will be struggling to fall back into the structured cycle of learning.

For Pristine Fujimaki, however, the day she is back in a classroom cannot come soon enough. "We have a calendar that we're marking daily," said Mrs Fujimaki. "We are counting the days until school starts again." hkhalaf@thenational.ae