For over a hundred years, the summer holidays have been a mainstay of the academic year, but why do we have them?
As the sunny summer days approach, fidgeting children sit in classrooms staring longingly out at the beckoning greenery outside. Flustered teachers, weary after a school year spent preparing their students for their annual exams, struggle to keep their students’ attention as they too daydream of the upcoming summer holidays.
For around six weeks over the summer, children are finally able let loose to enjoy the summer weather and relax after a busy year studying. Although now we can barely imagine life without them, how long have summer holidays been around?
Why do we have summer holidays?
The most common argument used for the existence of summer holidays is that children were allowed time off to help their parents in the fields. However, the Oxford Royale Academy refutes this theory, explaining that the school system was developed as British farms became more mechanised, so there was little need for extra manual labour. If the summer holidays existed for agricultural reasons, it adds, then it would make no sense for students to return to school in September when the busy harvesting season was just beginning.
The actual reason for school summer holidays is still unknown; in countries with more extreme temperatures, such as the United States, different states implemented different school holidays depending on the needs of the community; often to stop children from having to go to school in sweltering summer heat or dangerously cold winters.
In the UK, the summer holiday in general started from the times of Chaucer, with pilgrimages such as those in Canterbury tales, which people carried out both for religious reasons but also just to meet new people and see more of the world.
Over time, summer holidays developed into something for the wealthier classes -in the time of the Enlightenment, wealthy British families would send their sons on “The Grand Tour” after they graduated from university, where they would travel Europe to see the sights of the continent.
Summer holidays were finally popularised for the masses in the 19th century, as steam travel meant people could travel around the country without having to own a car. The advent of the Bank Holidays Act in 1871 and structured time off in factories and other jobs led to the rise of the traditional British seaside holiday.
Although these don’t explain exactly why schools have such a long summer holiday, it does show the increased value British people placed on having time off and their desire to travel to see more of the country.
Are summer holidays a good idea?
There is often much contention surrounding the school holidays, even though they are a staple of schoolchildren around the world. For families with single parents or where both parents work full-time, childcare becomes a significant – and expensive – issue during the holidays. Research from Epson states that the six week summer holiday costs parents £1445 per child, including childcare and entertainment.
In the UK, we don’t have the summer camp culture of the US, where parents send their children to camps in the countryside to stay while they carry on working. Even if we did, this would not be an option for families with limited income, for whom the summer holidays can be more of a financial burden.
For children from lower socio-economic backgrounds, the summer holidays can be a precarious time. In 2017, MPs warned that three million children risk going hungry over the holidays, as during term time they rely on free school meals.
The Guardian warns that the concept of “summer learning loss”, where children forget what they’ve learnt over the holiday period, is more pronounced in low-income families as well.
However, attempts to shorten the summer holidays – as Michael Gove advocated in 2013 – led to teacher strikes and resentment among students. Having a longer summer holiday allows teachers to better prepare classes and curriculums for the year ahead, and allows children to relax, especially as exams are normally held just before the summer holiday starts.
What can you do in the summer holidays?
If you’re looking for ways to keep your children entertained through the summer holidays without breaking the bank, we’ve come up with a few low-budget ideas to keep them busy.
If you have camping supplies and a garden, then you can set up a low-effort outdoors adventure at home. A cheap festival tent can cost as little as £15 and will make your kids feel like intrepid explorers.
On a hot summer’s day there’s nothing like getting your toes wet! See if you can find a cheap paddling pool for the garden, or take a trip to a nearby river to cool off – and don’t forget the towels!
Hit the library
This might not sound like the most exciting summer holiday plan, but just because your kids aren’t in school doesn’t mean they have to avoid books altogether. Foster a love of reading by finding a book you can read to them at night, or for older kids and teenagers, get recommendations from the internet or librarian to find something that they can get stuck into.
Perfect for those typical British rainy summer days, break out the craft drawer and use whatever you can find in the house to get their imaginations running. Empty toilet paper rolls can become space rockets, cardboard boxes from deliveries can become forts, and old bedsheets can become spectacular ball gowns – see where the day takes you.
Learn something new
If a summer camp is too long and too expensive, why not try a day experience? Here at Hotel Chocolat, we have a variety of chocolate experiences, including a children’s workshop where they can make their own chocolate bar to take home.
However you spend your summer holidays this year, we hope you make the most of the sunny weather, and your children can relax and enjoy their time off before they return from school.