Big Issue: ‘It’s a nightmare!’ Are the summer holidays too long?

Bored children, parents tearing their hair out, childcare costs, sky-high holiday prices. Isn’t the six-week school holiday really just an outdated pain in the neck? John Woodhouse investigates…

There was a time, when Lark Rise To Candleford was actual reality, and Bruce Forsyth was just a child, when children were called on in the summer months to help pick fruit and farm the land.

Having them at school wasn’t an option. They were needed as part of the workforce.

These days, of course, kids don’t work the land. The only time you see them in the fields is at a pick-your-own strawberry farm. And yet schools still have the same summer holidays.

So why do we persist with this archaic practice, one which appears to cause stress left, right and centre, and, educationally, has opponents who claim it damages children’s progress? Isn’t it time we took a long hard look at what exactly is the point of our school holiday regime and what we want our children to get out of it? Especially since, as some experts claim, the ideal of six weeks playing out with pals doesn’t even exist today – most parents are far too anxious about safety even to countenance their children doing such a thing.

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The six-week length of the break, meanwhile, means that many parents, far from spending an idyllic month-and-a-half with their offspring, are forced to shove them from pillar to post to make sure they themselves can get to work.

“Of course, children need downtime to be with their families,” says child psychologist Dr Pat Spungin, “but six weeks is too long. Even parents who are not working send them off to their mates, or cricket, or summer camp – there is a lot of shunting to and fro.”

And what of parents who can’t afford childcare or sports camps? What do they do? Isn’t it true that actually, far from skipping through sun-drenched meadows with butterfly nets, most kids spend the summer break inside glued to screens?

Elsewhere, left-wing think-tank the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) has suggested that pupils’ reading and maths abilities is negatively affected by being away from their studies for so long. It is only natural, says the think-tank, that information should disappear, suggesting the break be reduced by a fortnight to a month.

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As it stands, there is nothing to stop many schools deciding holiday dates outside the accepted calendar. Faith schools, academies, and free schools have that privilege. But how receptive would parents be were the summer break to be slashed?

“I’d quite like the summer holidays to be shorter now,” says mum-of-three Sara Bradshaw, “but I don’t remember complaining too much when I was a kid. There’s not much better than breaking up for six weeks, is there?”

Sara, aged 47, from Shelton, has children aged 17, 15, and nine. “I think the difference was, when I was a kid, my mum didn’t work,” she says. “I don’t think as many mums did back then. Now it’s hard because a lot of parents and single parents work. It is hard to shuffle everything round. I manage with grandparents and friends. If I paid for childcare, it would barely be worth me going to work.”

Andrew Grocott was taking his children to Hanley Park. “It’s a nightmare!,” he said. “Between me and my partner, we use up four weeks’ holiday, two each, to look after the kids, then we both have a week off for a holiday, and try to muddle through the rest the best we can.

“It is hard, but it’s not like any of it is a surprise. You know it’s coming, so you have to do something and sort it out.”

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True, and perhaps before us parents start feeling sorry for ourselves too much, we should take a look abroad to the likes of Italy where children enjoy a 13-week summer break, or Greece and Portugal (12). Only ourselves, Denmark, and Germany trail behind on six.

A 13-week break? In Italy, in the summer, they have the run of the great outdoors in some of the most glorious weather imaginable. Here, after the 15th visit to the indoor play area, parents would be quivering wrecks.

Maybe putting kids to work in the fields isn’t such a bad idea after all.

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