Why the summer holidays are too long;Another Voice;Opinion

22nd January 1999 at 00:00
Sometimes a crisis blows up that, on reflection, doesn't seem too much of a crisis after all. Remember that disastrous attempt, a few years ago, to evoke the horrors of global warming by telling us that Britain would soon have the climate of northern Italy? The prospect of living in a countryside full of grape vines instead of rape seed, of blue skies and searing heat, failed to produce the requisite degree of alarm.

It's difficult not to feel a similar response to the "shocking" news that local authorities are considering the adoption of a five-term school year which would involve the reduction of the summer holidays to "only" four weeks. Hearing that news I feel rather like a lowly member of Captain Bligh's crew who has been informed that his punishment of 1,000 lashes has been reduced to only 500. Still, it's an improvement.

Apparently, the original point of the long summer holiday was so that children could help their parents with bringing in the harvest. Considering that our children have proved dismally incapable of cleaning a rabbit hutch, this historical titbit produces a particularly hollow laugh. But, one response might go, isn't the long holiday now a part of children's culture?

In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, when Mr Beaver first mentions the name of Aslan to the children, Lucy "got the feeling you have when you wake up in the morning and realise that it is the beginning of the holidays or the beginning of summer". Whereas the traitorous Edmund felt a "sensation of mysterious horror".

For myself, I feel a combination of the two. There is something enticing about the beginning of this holiday that seems as if it will never end. And yet you could have said the same of the Hundred Years War (and the participants in that memorable conflict at least didn't know in advance what they were in for).

Children who were deliriously happy on the first day of the holiday may feel different when they have reached the 30th or 40th without the benefit of a visit to a world full of talking animals.

In the north London area where I live, you can chart the progress of a long, hot summer in the steady escalation in petty crime, once hanging around on street corners has lost its attraction.

And even though you ended July with hopes of the children keeping their studies up through the summer, you wind up consoling yourself that Pet Rescue may be just a little bit more educational than Blind Date - while for the children school has become a vague and distantmemory.

The long summer holiday is one of those peculiar British things we have been stuck with - such as the three-pin plug or driving on the left.

School holidays were invented for reasons nobody quite understands and since they were so entirely out of whack with the holidays of any adults except teachers and lollipop ladies, they assumed the presence of people at home (that is, non-working mothers) who would have this odd sort of life which enabled them to be available from 3.30pm most weekdays and then on hand all the time for arbitrary long stretches.

Then there is that strange long autumn term, in the closing stretches of which teachers, pupils and parents alike start dropping like front-line combatants among the ruck of carol concerts and nativity plays.

What system of terms and holidays would we have if we had invented one from scratch? The only simple answer is: not this one.

Obviously, it is a delusion to believe that any reapportionment of holidays is going to solve the childcare arrangements of the nation; but for most people, having eight-week terms separated by a two-week holiday in between (and four weeks in summer) will make planning so much easier.

But the real problem with parenthood is having all these children around so much. The parents in the Narnia books solved this by sending their children away to school and in the holidays shipping them off to strange relatives in the country - but that seems to be slightly missing the point.

Of course, everybody loses out in some way or another. In a random, unplanned way, the seven-week summer holiday does actually benefit families like ours in which some of the children have two holidays: one with each "parent who made me" (to use the coy modern term).

For example, this summer the Labour Government has, with typical flair, not just laid on an eclipse that is only visible from the poorest county in England, namely Cornwall, but it has timed it for the middle of August, so that we can fit the two summer holidays around it.

I don't think that would be possible under the proposed new system; but since it won't be relevant for another thousand years, this last point probably isn't a major contribution to the debate.

Sean French is a columnist for The New Statesman.

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