Kids's stuff: The Independent Summer School

It's summer, the new school term is still weeks away, and the children are gettingrestless. Might it be worth resorting to a Introducing The Independent Summer School
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The Independent Online

There is a sunlit barn in my head. It's an enormous, cavernous, slatted-wood structure filled with light, and it's entirely imaginary. Farmyard animals are not in evidence but can be heard clucking and mooing and cropping grass outside the barn door. Huge bars of sunlight, solid as yellow curtains, are streaming diagonally from the upper window, motes of dust curling and swaying through them like bugs on a stream.

There is a sunlit barn in my head. It's an enormous, cavernous, slatted-wood structure filled with light, and it's entirely imaginary. Farmyard animals are not in evidence but can be heard clucking and mooing and cropping grass outside the barn door. Huge bars of sunlight, solid as yellow curtains, are streaming diagonally from the upper window, motes of dust curling and swaying through them like bugs on a stream.

It is hot. When you put your face up to the sun, you feel like you're being embraced. A faint breath of wind plays a sighing, fragile F-sharp on the aeolian harp suspended from the doorframe. On the barn's upper level, four white turtledoves, no, make that four purple-pink-and-green turtledoves (dyed, as Lord Berners used to dye his doves to resemble "a cloud of confetti in the sky") are perching companionably together, making comfortable cooing noises.

Huge bales of hay are piled up in makeshift walls, but one of them has a collapsed look about it, as though someone had taken to leaning against it, day after day, and falling asleep. The someone is, of course, myself (who were you expecting, Jane Russell?) and, yes, here I come, short-trousered, tousled-haired, paisley-shirted and about nine. It's the school holidays. I'm carrying a bottle of Tizer and a bag of crisps and there's a number of dog-eared copies of The Beano under my arm, and I am going to while away the hours in utterly useless activity before going off to score some gobstoppers and see if some friends are available for some pointless mucking about.

This is my perfect summer scene. It is, I'm afraid, mostly fictional, since I grew up beside the South Circular in London and never saw a barn. But the Tizer and crisps and comics were real enough. The main thing about this idyllic scene is its pointlessness. Family trips abroad notwithstanding, you do not spend a perfect summer doing anything, going anywhere, achieving any, God help us, goals. You spend your time hanging out, going with the flow, seeing what's around, falling in love with the idea of extra-school inactivity. You could spend half an hour gazing into space and slowly licking a cola lolly, without any urgent need to spring into action.

But we cannot allow that, can we? We are parents, serious members of the community, and we cannot allow the young to fritter their valuable time away like this. We must organise them, buck up their ideas, make lists, give them things to do. We must ensure that every minute of their seven sunlit weeks is filled with high-energy achievement.

In America, they order these things with fantastic efficiency through the medium of summer camp, where every high-school kid is expected to join in an exhausting regimen of outdoor activities, from white-water rafting and orienteering to French kissing and target practice with a Desert Eagle automatic pistol – just the same as boy scouts and girl guides, only without the woggles and "We're Riding Along on the Crest of a Wave". They are packed off by their, ahem, tearful parents with the happy fiction that they, the parents, couldn't possibly show the young ones half as good a time as those wacky camping experts.

We are rather more cautious about the wisdom of dumping our children in the woods with scoutmasters for a month or two. We try other things. One is the Fun Overload. You simply supply your children with equipment, both animate and otherwise, and let them wear themselves out. I generally do this by ferrying the children to the home of someone richer than I where the novelty of setting will be compounded by the presence of a pool, trampoline, pony, litter of kittens, table-tennis table, billiard table, PlayStation console, field with goalposts, trapeze, other children...

It is, of course, seldom easy to arrange this level of indulgence (unless you happen to know my sister), which is why we tend to fall back on the Interesting Trip. In this scenario, the worried parent takes days off work to make sure the offspring have enough things to look at in museums and in nature. Thus, they whizz them round the Science Museum, the Nat Hist, the Zoological, the Museum of the Moving Image; chivvy them through the National, both Tates and the National Portrait (avoiding the unfortunate male nudes in the Portrait Prize section) and, finally, when the children are thoroughly saturated with blue whales, dinosaurs, magnetic fields, oscilloscopes, Charlie Chaplin movies and paintings of Iris Murdoch the parents take their mutinous charges for a drive.

The Family Outing is the lowest form of entertainment known to man, beast or child. Its whole point is not to spend money on anything more extravagant than a Mr Whippy ice cream. The kids resent it. They would like the Family Outing to be at Thorpe Park. They'd settle for Chessington World of Adventures. They get a dismal boat ride in Battersea Park – or, worse, the Great Outdoors.

Look at that view, we say to them, that is Lake Windermere. Gaze down this lovely Welsh valley, we insist, and drink in the view. Look out from the London Eye, we cry, does not London look wonderful from this dizzying vantage point? Sadly, as grown-ups come to realise, children have zero appreciation of landscape. They do not wish to look at the view. They wish to look at Die Hard With a Vengeance.

None of these activities hits the right note as a viable parent-child modus operandi. The Fun Overload, like the summer camp, hands over responsibility for the children to other people and the anonymity of the playground. The Interesting Trip involves parents and kids in doing things together, but bores the glutei maximi off the latter. The Family Outing is an impulse that should be strangled at birth, because its participants have differing notions about what constitutes enjoyment.

Is there an alternative? We think so. We think, perhaps controversially, that learning could be the answer. Specifically, we believe that, just as parental support is the best guarantor of educational confidence in children, so shared learning is a matchless cementer of parent-child relationships. And we think we know how to make it neither dull nor a grind.

The Independent Summer School, which begins today, is a six-day course – or, rather, a course that will appear over six days, to which you can devote as much or as little time as you choose – that encourages and enables parents and children to learn together. Aimed at families with children aged from five to 13, it covers a number of disciplines from the school curriculum and beyond – English, modern languages, science, history, geography, maths and the creative arts – all re-thought, refreshed and given a user-friendly glow. Its purpose is to encourage children to explore their favourite (and least-favourite) subjects from new angles – to try special exercises, to play new games, to identify enthralling things to see or visit or read, to find inspiration in websites and TV programmes, to enter competitions, and to explore whole new worlds of intellectual invigoration. Whether they're discovering what turned Simon Schama on to history, or writing haiku about the holidays, or releasing the energy from a peanut, parents can involve themselves with their children's new enthusiasms.

This is not, we are anxious to stress, a matter of school by other means. The summer school is a flexible concept designed primarily for your children's amusement. They and you can dip in and out of it as you please, grabbing and running with whatever seems relevant or interesting and scorning the rest. It's not a course, there's no exam at the end, there are no targets, and it bears little or no relation to the current curriculum. All we're doing is supplying the raw material to keep young and older minds rewardingly active; and suggesting, tentatively, that finding things out together can sometimes be more fun than, you know, fun.

Introduction to the Independent Summer School

By Richard Askwith

Summer school? Who wants a summer school? To children, the phrase is likely to imply sunny days squandered on dull deskwork; to adults, expensive scams devised to part gullible parents from their money and their offspring simultaneously. Children waste enough of their childhood in classrooms already. Who but the obsessively pushy would condemn them to more?

But that's not what our summer school is about. Our summer school offers fun, freedom and flexibility. You can devote as much or as little time to it as you like. There's just one golden rule: enjoy it.

The "school" is based on a few self-evident truths. First: nothing leads a child to educational success so surely as warm, detailed parental support. Second: nothing cements a parent-child relationship so firmly as shared learning. Third (but not least): few things place such relationships under so much strain as the long, under-occupied weeks of the summer holidays.

With the new school term still weeks away, The Independent Summer School offers families with school-age children a rare opportunity to fill some of the educational gaps that tend to be overlooked by today's results-obsessed curriculum, and to enjoy doing so.

The six-day course is tailored for children aged anything from five to 13, whatever their educational level. Whether you devote six days to it, or six minutes, or two-and-a-half weeks, is up to you. Our aim is simply to supply the raw material to help keep young and older minds rewardingly active.

The course won't cram anyone full of extra facts for exams. But it should help everyone to explore their favourite and least-favourite subjects from different angles, stimulating fresh understanding and unexpected enthusiasms. People who work in education will notice all sorts of ways in which our curriculum differs from the official curriculum. No matter. Our school isn't aimed at people who work in education. It's aimed at children, who are quite capable of mastering the nitty-gritty necessary for exams once they feel enthusiastic and confident about a subject – but who often need help getting to that happy state.

Parents and children rarely have enough energy to take much pleasure from homework during the term, or even to spend as much time with one another as they'd like. These next few weeks – and this series – offer a perfect opportunity to get to know one another again, and to join forces in the quest for educational fulfilment.

You should find more than enough challenges to keep you busy, from describing sweets in foreign languages to making DNA out of kiwi fruit or drawing in the style of Picasso. Don't take it all too seriously. Just dip into the bits that seem relevant or interesting to you, and take out whatever grabs you. This isn't a course to be done for a certain number of hours a week: it's just a collection of suggestions and ideas, some of which may divert you for hours or minutes – and some of which will leave you completely cold. Don't worry. This series is intended as pleasure, not punishment; a bonus, not a chore.

Each day of the series is devoted to a different subject (see the guide below), starting with English today. Each instalment has the same structure: a general introduction to the enjoyable learning of the day's subject, followed by three separate sets of more detailed advice, aimed at five to seven-year-olds; eight to 10-year-olds; and 11 to 13-year-olds. You are welcome to browse material for other age groups; or you may find that your enthusiasms are sparked more forcefully by the various lists of books, websites and events that we have scattered around each episode, or by the daily competitions we've included.

It is, to repeat, up to you. When real school resumes, the teacher's word is what counts. But at this summer school, until next Thursday, the children are in charge.