Carve up this long, hot summer of discontent

5th September 2003 at 01:00
Yes, my children had a very nice summer, thank you for asking. One spent a couple of weeks at Yale, before backpacking round Central America. One holidayed in Greece, then worked as a summer camp counsellor.

The third went on a school expedition to Africa to paint health clinics and to see what life is like when you do not have electricity and clean water, let alone mobile phones and instant messaging.

All three will return to their studies this autumn renewed and stimulated and, I hope, ready to make the most of the new year.

But not all children are so lucky. In fact, not many are. One girl I know has spent the past six weeks doing household chores and wandering up and down her local high street hoping to bump into someone she knows. Although that, she says, is better than when she was younger, and not allowed out at all. Her mother, away at work, wanted her in the house where she knew she would be safe.

By the end of the holidays, the girl said, she knew exactly what was on every television channel, every hour of every day. And this kind of summer is commonplace.

Two years ago, when a 1,000 school students were asked how they passed their summer, 50 per cent said surfing the internet and playing computer games at home. More recently, half of 2,000 seven to 15-year-olds said their favourite holiday hang-out was at a friend's house, where they no doubt did exactly the same things.

Even those who go away on a family holiday can find that the rest of their summer is a desert. It takes time and money to occupy children these days, now that traffic and stranger-danger have put paid to that old summertime favourite, roaming around with your friends.

A few children are sent on play schemes or to sports camps, but many more are left home alone or shuttled back and forth between separated parents, or child-minded in a desultory way by resentful older siblings. Do they like it? No, they do not.

Children summoned back to school for holiday booster classes can be surprisingly buoyant about being there. "You always think the holiday is going to be so great," explained one 11-year-old boy. "At the start of it you're always like, 'Yeah, brilliant, we're on holiday!' but after about a week you're already bored with it."

This week, as the new term starts, teachers will be expected to be off like rockets, cracking on through the national curriculum to squeeze the best possible results out of their pupils next summer.

But what about the raw material they are expected to do this with? If they are lucky, a few children will arrive in school glowing with health and eager to learn. Many more will be pasty-faced and lethargic from a long summer of junk food, closed curtains, and no exercise. These are the children whose last year's learning will have dissolved into a fog of banal chatroom chatter or, even worse, a murky soup of violent and sexual screen images.

They may have learned to spell some new words that you shudder to think they have even heard of, but ask them about decimals or French verbs and all you will get is a vacant-mouthed stare. And this when we know so much more than we used to about how the way that we use the brain directly affects its readiness to learn.

If, for a month-and-a-half, students' synapses have stopped snapping, what great chunk of the autumn term are they going to need to get them going again?

In our society, where most parents work, where many children spend their summers corralled at home, and where background and income remains the biggest dictator by far of how children do in school, the long summer holiday is an idea whose time has gone.

Little breaks and more of them - just like they take in today's brain-friendly classrooms - would be a much better way forward.

How disappointing, then, to read that although many schools are now starting to carve their three long terms up into six shorter ones, the sacred summer holiday is to remain untouched.

Hilary Wilce is a freelance journalist

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