End barren harvest of seven-week break

4th July 1997 at 01:00
My son and his friends are planning to find jobs picking strawberries this summer, and I say, fine. The summer holidays were designed for children to help with the harvest - so go harvest.

But not every student lives in the Garden of England where agricultural jobs are two a penny, nor do we now consider heavy farm labour quite the ticket for young teens and under, which leaves us with the question: what is the summer break for?

As a working mother I can answer with alacrity - the summer break is for making the already-stressful existence of working parents nigh on impossible.

Every year, come the end of July, a seven-week chasm opens up in the year, to be bridged by a makeshift structure hammered together from bits of parental leave, snatches of local play schemes, off-cuts from helpful friends and the screws and nails of dutiful grandparents.

Over this rickety edifice working parents and their children totter every summer for a decade and more, until the children are old enough to be left alone with the back-door key, and their parents with the nagging suspicion that unsupervised teenagers, unreliable friends, the drinks cupboard and the porn-laden Internet might not be the recipe for a happy and healthy summer.

However, the holiday performs other important functions, too - like digging ever deeper the gulf that divides the haves from the have-nots.

These days the summer of the modern, middle-class child is a positive orgy of experiential learning, intensive networking and global exploration. Children go on playschemes and adventure holidays, are booked into tennis clinics, learn dinghy sailing, take music and acting workshops, develop their languages, and fly blithely off to the kind of destinations most of us could only dream of at their age ("Dad's got friends in Egypt . . .") Even just hanging out has a different flavour if you're hanging out at the stables where you keep your horse, or at your friend's north Cornish holiday cottage, or your crowd-free school pool, open to families (at a price) for the summer.

Compare and contrast this with the holiday experience of children whose parents not only lack the money, but also the time, information, foresight and connections to craft such a summer, children whose main summer learning experience might be discovering just how long a day can seem when you're hanging out at the shopping centre unable to afford any of the clothes and CDs you yearn for, and it isn't hard to see which children are going to return to school the more refreshed, enriched and ready to start the next school year.

Which leads straight on to the third thing the summer break is really good for - helping students to forget everything they knew at the end of the school year before.

I don't know if figures on this exist in this country, but studies in the United States show that students returning from that country's two- and-a-half month summer vacation need at least two weeks at the beginning of the new year to revive what they knew at the end of the old one (less able students, longer), and it's hard to envisage what would be different here. Our summer holiday may be shorter, but the principle of the long gap is much the same.

All of which makes it not only easy to see that David Blunkett is doing exactly the right thing by seizing on the summer as down time that must be harnessed to push up standards, but also to see that this pilot scheme is likely to proliferate fast into a huge network of school-based summer schools offering students a mixture of arts, sports and academic learning.

Not because of any national breast-beating about the way Britain under-performs in international literacy leagues (we lay people hardly think twice about it) but because the brute facts of bored children, working parents, and a traffic-ridden modern life which no longer allows children to mooch about making their own amusements, mean we urgently need better ways to keep summertime children occupied than the kind of rag-bag of local authority sports courses and adventure playgrounds currently on offer.

In fact, add into this mixture the stress on teachers trying to cram in everything before the end of July, and the sheer waste of school campuses lying empty for weeks at a stretch, and the seven-week summer holiday begins to look like an idea whose time has not so much gone as totally vanished.

David Hargreaves, professor of education at Cambridge, says we will have to dismantle and reconstruct existing educational structures if we are to have any hope of coping with the fluidity of the post-modern world, and what more basic structure can there be than the traditional year with its long, hard haul up to Christmas, and its headlong dash down to summer exams?

Yet attempts in the past to debate the idea of a four or five-term year have floundered in the swamps of tradition and inertia. So much so that by the 1990s discussion had sunk altogether under the weight of the new national curriculum and the only article this paper has carried on the subject this decade is one I wrote - six years ago - about experiments abroad.

But times have changed. Life is accelerating like a rocket away from the 1980s. More parents are working now, more is being demanded of schools and pupils, there is more official recognition of children's needs, more anxiety about youth crime and drug-taking.

Perhaps most importantly of all, we're all much more comfortable with change than we used to be, more accepting that it is coming to be one of the very few constants in our fluctuating lives, so maybe the time has come to raise again these same old questions.

Why have a seven-week holiday at all when children are no longer needed to help with the harvest? Who's it for? Who doesn't it serve? And why not consider something different altogether? A four-term year, say, or a five-term one?

Well? Why not?

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