Shmuel Slavin, What Is So Bad About a Long Summer Vacation?

'My idea is that vacation will end on August 20 or 21 and some of these days, at least, will be returned in the form of a special winter break.'

During recent weeks, Shmuel Slavin, who heads a public committee looking into the way the school year is structured, has been trying to find a way to shorten summer vacation without being rejected by the teachers unions.

In the past decade, there have already been two similar plans for shortening summer vacation, but they've never been implemented, largely because of opposition from the National Teachers Union and the Secondary School Teachers Association. Slavin, who has served as director general of the Finance Ministry, the Social Affairs Ministry and the Mifal Hapayis state lottery, understands that the teachers' agreement is necessary if the status quo is to change.

What is so bad about having a long vacation from school in the summer?

In the high schools, the academic year ends on June 20, and in the elementary schools it ends 10 days later, on June 30. Any reasonable person can understand that nine consecutive weeks of vacation are not a good thing. After six or seven weeks, the children and the youth start to get bored and the vacation becomes oppressive, and this leads to harmful things.

Most parents get 14 to 20 days of vacation a year and here the students have a vacation that goes on for 60 or 70 days. It makes no difference what the parents do - there will still be a great many days when the children are unsupervised.

A high school student is at least independent, but when it comes to those in kindergarten or elementary school it's a difficult situation. This harms the parents' productivity at work and negatively affects the students themselves.

I examined the historical roots of summer vacation. It transpires that in the 19th century children were taken to work in the fields to help with the harvest. Today children don't help their parents with their work.

Are there pedagogical reasons for shortening summer vacation?

Research we received in the committee indicates that such a long vacation creates gaps between students from well-off families and their friends from poorer families. A child who doesn't get private lessons or tutoring during the summer takes a much longer time to get back into the swing of things at the beginning of the year than those who do get such assistance. Therefore a long vacation is lethal for children from poorer families. The gap between students from different socioeconomic backgrounds, which gradually closes during the school year, opens up again during summer vacation.

In addition, in recent years most of the power in the education system has been handed over to the students themselves, [in terms of] the rights of the students and the question of what they want. This pendulum must be brought back to the center and the parents and teachers must be given power. That is a gradual process, and shortening the summer vacation is a small step in that direction.

The teachers unions say that shortening the summer vacation is an attempt to appease the parents who want someone else - the school - to take responsibility for their children. Another argument is that the schools aren't built for holding classes in the heat of August.

No matter what we do, there will always be arguments. But common sense, and research, show that it is simply not reasonable to have nine consecutive weeks of vacation. It is also difficult to accept the claim about studying in August. After all, the weather doesn't suddenly become cool on September 1. It's the same furnace.

What changes do you want to implement in the structure of the school year?

Because the vacation is too long and damages students from poorer families, and because this year Rosh Hashanah fell only a few days after the beginning of the school year - making it impossible to study seriously - it is clear to everyone that September 1 is not a sacred date. Perhaps even the opposite is true.

My idea is that vacation will end on August 20 or 21 and some of these days, at least, will be returned in the form of a special winter break. The uninterrupted period of study between Hanukkah and the beginning of Passover is also too long, and a break could help. Another possibility is to return some of the days deducted from the summer holiday by extending the Hanukkah and Passover vacations.

The number of work days is spelled out in the teachers' collective work agreement. Won't the teachers unions demand money for additional workdays?

If the number of workdays does increase, they will get compensation. One possibility is that the days deducted from the summer vacation will be returned during other vacations. Another possibility is that the school year will be lengthened by four or five days, for which the teachers will receive pay.

I have already begun discussing an addition to the budget with the treasury - it would require an estimated NIS 300 million or NIS 400 million per year. The treasury supports a change but is not very eager to pay for it. It is not their top priority. As someone who used to work in the Finance Ministry, I hope to reach a compromise solution and attain understanding among all the sides. This is extremely important.

Previous attempts to change the structure of the school year have failed.

There are representatives of the local authorities on the committee that I head, and there are also parent representatives and representatives of the two teachers unions. I decided to make every possible effort to arrive at recommendations that are acceptable to all. There were too many proposals in the past that were not acceptable to the teachers, and we can't change the existing conditions without their agreement. We started to think about how it would be possible to straighten things out. A senior representative of one of the teachers unions told me that this was a rare opportunity because everyone is aware that starting school on September 1 is something that has to be changed. If the recommendations of the committee are unanimous, I assume that it will be easier for Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar to accept them.

You used to be very involved in politics, but in recent years you've taken a step back. Don't you miss it?

Minister Gideon Sa'ar asked me to head the committee, and since education is extremely important in my eyes, I agreed to help. In addition to that, I am a member of the planning and budgeting committee of the Council for Higher Education. I don't miss politics; I am very engaged in the business world.