It’s summer … time to send the kids away?
Will Bond has a packed schedule this summer. After term finishes at his school near Norwich on Friday, the 12-year-old will spend a week at a residential Scout and Guide camp doing everything from archery to abseiling, attend a three-day cricket camp to help him bat and bowl like Freddie Flintoff, join his parents Chris and Richard and sister Emily on the north Norfolk coast for a week’s family holiday, and then probably fit in a week of football training just before going back to school for the start of a new academic year on 6 September.
Will’s itinerary is typical of a rapidly growing number of young people. ‘Will’s busy, yes, but not as busy as his friends, some of whom have all but one of their six weeks off school already filled with learning and playing golf, tennis or football,’ says Will’s mother, Chris.
She is happy that her son will be doing things that he enjoys and that will give him exciting new experiences. Unlike many parents, though, Chris is glad that neither Will nor Emily, who is attending a week-long playscheme, will stay away from home over the summer, as all their activities are nearby. ‘I understand why so many parents, especially working parents, book their children into camps and courses and fill their children’s time over the summer with lots of different activities,’ says the 44-year-old television researcher. But she has vivid memories of spending a summer in New Hampshire as a 20-year-old student helping to look after 200 American children aged eight to 16 at a Camp America activity centre. ‘I found it quite shocking that there were parents prepared to ship their kids off to camp for eight weeks, even though some of them were only eight and some had just come from boarding schools. I thought it was quite heartless, actually,’ she recalls.
‘Some of the parents were travelling around Europe, and I got the impression that they’d put their children into this camp for their convenience, and not because the children loved it. In fact, for the first week lots of the kids were in tears every night because they hadn’t seen their parents in ages.’
However, all the evidence suggests that more and more British parents are sending their children on residential summer courses to play sports, or learn everything from drama or painting to surfing. Unlike Camp America, most are for a week or fortnight at most. However, whether it is born of necessity, a desire for offspring to try their hand at exciting pursuits, or parental selfishness, the trend is unmistakeable.
John Firth, commercial director of PGL, one of Britain’s biggest companies offering residential activity courses and adventure holidays, said: ‘Five years ago PGL’s turnover was £20m but now it’s £50m, and the growth in the summer market is a big part of that. In 2001 we looked after 13,000-14,000 kids, mainly aged nine to 15, in our summer camps. This year it’ll be 18,000-20,000.’
What lies behind this big increase? ‘The trend towards both parents working is certainly fuelling the growth,’ Firth said. ‘The dilemma for them is: what do we do with the kids for six weeks while we’re both at work? Who will look after them?’
Firth stresses the fun that the children have and extols the benefits they get: greater confidence, new experiences, social skills, new friends and an enhanced sense of independence. He talks of ‘character-building’ activities such as overcoming a fear of heights, or learning to swim, or learning to be away from home for the first time. That, indeed, is many parents’ motivation.
But Firth admitted: ‘Some are homesick, and some are desperately missing their mum and dad. Maybe some parents have sent their child away on a summer camp because they need to find a solution for the summer for their childcare, or are going on holiday and don’t want to take their child with them.’
Angela Holland of Parentline Plus, a charity that helps parents of Britain’s 14.8 million young people under 20, says summer is a difficult time for many parents. ‘Some of those summer days can feel very long and be stressful and horrible for parents, as well as idyllic and relaxed. Summer upsets children’s routine, which is usually based around going to school. Mealtimes and bedtimes can become very disturbed, especially with the long, light days, and you have to create a new routine, which takes a lot of organising.
‘In the summer we get fewer calls to our helpline during the day and more late at night, after the kids have gone to bed, from parents, some of whom are frazzled from trying to keep their kids amused all day and want to offload a bit.’
Sending their child ‘on camp’ for a week this summer is not cheap. Parents pay anything from £185 to £475. PGL charges £400. The Abbey bank has calculated that keeping a child happy for their six weeks off costs around £1,200.
Expense means residential camps are not an option for everyone. In a bid to make residential stays available to all, the Culture Secretary, Tessa Jowell, unveiled a plan in 2004 to put £11.5m of National Lottery funding into a scheme called Do it 4 Real, which involved giving 21,000 kids a week of outdoor fun for £100. After this summer, though, the scheme will end. Ministers had talked of one week’s activity holiday becoming an automatic right for all 11-14-year-olds by this year, but that has not happened.
Firth points out that the numbers going are ‘peanuts’ compared to the US, where millions of children will spend time on a camp in the next few weeks.
Chris Bond, though, laments that, with children’s lives so regimented already, so many parents now encourage their offspring to cram as many activities as possible into what used to be six weeks of DIY fun punctuated by a family holiday. ‘I would hate to see us following the American model of kids being sent off to camps for a whole summer, to be looked after,’ she says. ‘I prefer the idea of using non-timetabled time with your children to do whatever you fancy together, as a family, and appreciating that.’
What do you think? Tell us on the Observer blog.
Four ways to entertain your children cheaply – or even for free – this summer:
Car boot sales
A cheap weekend way to kill time. Give your children a few pounds and see what they buy.
Put on a barbecue, treasure hunt or a fight with water-filled balloons. ‘Paint the garden’ by putting down a roll of cheap lining paper and letting the kids do their worst with hands, feet or brushes.
Go to the theatre
Some have budget-rate family performances and others mount regular ‘pay what you can afford’ nights.
Go youth hostelling
Join the Youth Hostel Association for cheap accommodation all over the UK. Autor: Denis Campbell and Antoinette Odoi