Mike Fielding on the increased isolation of rural children in the long summer break
For many country children, going back to school after the summer break signals the end of one of the loneliest periods of their lives. For them, holidays are a trial in which the only other young people they see are their siblings - and any activities depend on the generosity and transport of their parents.
Carol, for instance, lives with her parents and young brother in an idyllic valley where the muted roar of a tractor is an intrusion. When she gets off the school bus, one of her parents waits to drive her half a mile down a rutted lane to the kind of traditional Devon longhouse visitors would drool over. She spent most of the holiday there - the only teenager within three miles.
She helped on the farm, looked after her pony, went to church on Sunday and had her best friend to stay a couple of times. She also spent a couple of days with her friend in the nearby village, but her parents were not very keen. "They think all the kids there hang out on the corner getting into trouble, " she says. They would have taken her to the north Devon show but it was rained off, and the few odd days they spent at the beach had to be fitted around milking and other chores. Her father, in particular, is never keen to leave the farm.
Things were a little better for 15-year-old Joe. He lives near a hamlet of 20 houses, a well-known tourist pub and a riding stables. He helped out at the stables and spent some of his time taking holiday riders across Exmoor. "But there's only one other person my age in the village," he says, "and I don't really get on with her."
Joe would like to spend time with his schoolfriends but the cottage he lives in with his parents is too small for visitors and his dad takes their only car to work, usually comes back late and is therefore not around to do much chauffeuring.
Isolation for young people in rural areas is a year-round problem, but is more acute in summer. On the last day of term there is always lots of hugging and many tears as they wait for the buses that will scatter them throughout the school's 200 square mile catchment area. September seems an age away. The lack of public transport and activities aimed specifically at young people means "leisure time" can weigh heavily. The telephone is often the only contact between friends - even taking part in an after-school activity is heavily dependent on parents providing transport.
Most are willing chauffeurs, recognising the disadvantages of country living for their children - some co-operate to share the transport load. But in an area of low wages and long hours, many simply do not have the means to allow their children access to even the meagre amount of entertainment available.
In larger villages, that may mean the occasional disco, a one-or-two-nights-a-week youth club and all-age activities based on church or chapel. Otherwise youngsters frequent the pub - if there's a pool table - or congregate on village green or corner. Residents dislike both activities - and some of the young people then express their defiance through vandalism or rowdiness.
And it's not just about entertainment. These young people live relatively restricted lives with little awareness, except through the media, of how teenagers elsewhere pass their time. Their friendships are largely restricted to schoolmates and family. And yet they will soon enter a world in which the capacity to form relationships quickly with a wide range of people will be an essential social and economic skill. As will understanding of the multi-ethnic and multicultural society that makes up most of Britain today.
Few will stay on the farm or in the village as their parents did. They will go on to college or university before seeking jobs in the kinds of industries where flexibility, confidence and the ability to learn quickly from a range of sources is essential.
As they return from the long summer holiday, some may ask themselves whether - attractive as their lives might seem to crime and pollution-threatened urban dwellers - it is the best preparation for a future in the real world. They will also be glad the last six weeks are over.
Mike Fielding is former principal of The Community College, Chulmleigh, Devon. He now lives in Northumberland