The view from here - France - Why French children won't carry on camping

Colin Randall

As teachers leave school today, they know that the pupils they have taken care of over the past academic year will not be their responsibility for the next six weeks. For many of them, it will be a relief; for the children's parents, perhaps less so.

In France, there is a long-standing cure for summer holiday boredom: packing off the youngsters to a colonie de vacances, or summer camp. The non-stop programmes of activities, from going on bicycle rides and woodland treks to putting on plays, are something of a French national institution. But they are now under threat from modern notions of employees' rights.

New rules remove the voluntary status of staff, imposing precise entitlements for time off. About 300,000 people are affected, according to Bernard Kammerer, an organiser of children's holidays, and Yannick Trigance, a conseiller regional who is close to President Francois Hollande on educational matters. The impact, they argue in an article for newspaper Le Monde, will be dramatic: higher costs for parents, lower attendance, camp closures and lay-offs.

French summer camps grew rapidly in popularity after the concept was introduced in the 1880s, coinciding with the reformist government minister Jules Ferry's law requiring schooling for all 6- to 12-year-olds. Often run by religious or lay charities, they were widely affordable even to lower income groups, although middle-class parents also gradually began to realise the benefits.

"They offer a powerful experience for children, often those who never or only rarely have holidays," says Trigance. "It opens the world for them; they see different places and learn to live in groups by the sea or in the mountains or countryside without parents present. The chance to learn in sporting and cultural activities adds an educational dimension."

Attendance at camps has been falling but has stabilised at about 1.1 million each summer, according to the most recent figures, for 2010. But economic crisis has forced organisers, especially in the commercial sector, to turn to imaginative promotion of their camps, stressing that they are an opportunity for children to remain within a learning environment during school holidays. One British option, at Condover Hall in Shrewsbury, promises an ambience "tres Harry Potter" on the linguistic courses it offers French children.

Children who go to more traditional camps in France can still look forward to tuition in astronomy, horse riding and a range of water sports.

Fabrice Leboeuf from Cemea, an association that represents camp workers and champions wider access to educational opportunities, says that parents welcome the educational benefits, although the main aim of the camps is to aid children's personal development.

Middle-class parents have been squeezed tightest by the economic crisis, he says. The better-off can continue to pay for high-quality holidays for their children, while lower-income families enjoy a range of benefits that can cut the typical weekly cost of camps from #163;400 to nothing.

For the authors of the gloomy Le Monde report, one effect of the new protections for camp staff may be that the number of French children denied any holiday at all each year, already estimated at 3 million, will go on rising.

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Colin Randall

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