Urban notion harvested rural myth
It is as regular a fixture of the school calendar as results day: the annual outcry over the length of summer holidays. Each year, critics bemoan the irrelevance of a system based on farmers' need to have their children free to help with the harvest. But, says Jacob Middleton, a historian at Birkbeck College, London, this is a myth.
School summer holidays have nothing to do with the agricultural calendar, he says. By the late 18th century, English farms were largely mechanised. Small land-holdings were increasingly rare, and new inventions, such as the threshing machine, made it easier to harvest hundreds of acres. "There wasn't even enough work for all the adult men," he says. "The Factory Act in the 1830s put increasing restrictions on children in the workplace, so it's unlikely children were working."
Meanwhile, the notion of the middle-class holiday had begun to develop. Since the 18th century, Parliament and the courts had gone into recess between July and September. Gradually, this seeped into other middle-class professions. "A lot of children in public schools had parents who were lawyers or in Parliament," said Mr Middleton. "So by the early 19th century, public schools took four or five weeks' holiday. That also suited the teachers, who liked to think of themselves as middle-class professionals."
By the 1870s, when state schools were introduced, a clear pattern was established: two weeks' holiday at Christmas, one week at Easter and four or five weeks over the summer.
"It was a pattern established, not by rural schools, but by urban centres: London, Birmingham, Glasgow," says Mr Middleton, "very much aimed at teachers, though there was also a feeling that play was an important part of learning."
Within 20 years, these holidays had become an integral part of teachers' professional identity, and had begun to draw criticism.
In a letter to the Daily News in 1892, a correspondent noted: "Little by little, the holidays at most of our schools have increased from an average of eight weeks in the year to something like 14. This gradual change has been entirely in the interest of the masters, for the school fees have not decreased in corresponding ratio."
"You can start to see the arguments we have in the 21st century," says Mr Middleton. "They're attacking the prestige of teachers."
And there was one other argument used: incompatibility with the harvest. In less-industrialised Scotland, farmers began to call for a long holiday in September and October, when their teenage children could be put to productive use in the fields. But, Mr Middleton points out, arguments about the irrelevance of harvest-based summer holidays nonetheless resurface annually.
"It's become a covert attack on the rights of teachers," he says. "The rhetoric about the harvest is bound up in trying to discredit the idea of these big holidays: that it's something we did in the past, and we should be modern and move on."