Rowan Pelling: Summer schools - who wants them? (Unless you're a parent)

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The Independent Online

My innate horror of summer camp probably stems from listening one too many times to Allan Sherman's classic song "Hello muddah, hello faddah". An incarcerated little boy tells of rain, alligators and Ptomaine poisoning before wailing, "Take me home, I hate Grenada./ Don't leave me out in the forest where/ I might get eaten by a bear."

The song always reminds me of the day my mother dropped me, aged seven, at a two-day Brownie camp. I took one look at the field covered in tents, flags and little girls with pigtails and fled, wailing after the family Ford Escort. I'm not sure what frightened me most - the fear of being abandoned to the hearty ministrations of Brown Owl or the dread of two days playing rounders and singing "Kookaburra" round a camp fire.

My mistrust of such ventures was hardened when I was dispatched two years later to a "summer music school". My sole claim to musicality was an ability to play "Greensleeves" on the recorder and the only reason I was there was that the family of my great friend Polly had swept me along.

Not that I saw much of Polly as she was a talented cellist and singer, who spent most of the day rehearsing with the summer school's junior orchestra and choir.

I, meanwhile, was in some kind of remedial class with the other cack-eared dunces, a couple of five-year-olds and a bunch of glockenspiels. There was also a music and mime class where I was asked to push an imaginary boulder across the room with my feet.

Need I go on? At night I would rejoin Polly in a dormitory stuffed full of budding Emma Johnson types and weep softly into my pillow. I'd rather have been a chimney sweep or Victorian child prostitute than ever repeat the experience.

Divesting yourself of your children for great swathes of time has traditionally been a practice of the middle and upper classes. Now the Government wants to extend the opportunity to dump to every family in the country and £12.5m of lottery funding has been allocated towards bringing the traditional US-style summer camp to Britain. The scheme, which is called Get REAL, is one of those desperately misjudged New Labour attempts to sound funky (and which in reality will make any streetwise kid vomit all over their Nike shoes).

According to Tessa Jowell, the scheme is supposed to build social skills and encourage bored kids into "empowering" activities.

It is also aimed at promoting wider racial integration, after a survey found that more than nine out of ten white Britons have practically no friends from ethnic minorities.

Leaving aside the fact that just under 10 per cent of Britain's population is composed of minority groups (whereas it's almost 30 per cent in the States) and that it's hard to have black friends when you live in Cromer or Caithness, it seems to me that the unaccustomed social compression of summer camp is as likely to foster tribalism as to deter it.

It's clear that no one on the Get REAL team has read the collection of short stories Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by the acclaimed young US author ZZ Packer. In "Brownies" she describes how an African-American troop converge on summer camp with a troop of white Brownies and end up ambushing them in the washroom after the little black girls believe that one or more of the white girls has described them as "niggers".

As for empowerment, the pilot scheme for Get REAL reported that 16 per cent of participants were more confident afterwards - but what of the other 84 per cent? My colleague Susanna tells how her brother was once dispatched to a camp for gifted children in Norfolk. He chose the literature option and found himself studying A Midsummer Night's Dream in a hut with a bunch of swottish girls and was put off books for life.

It's clear to me that those who truly benefit most from summer school are the relieved parents, which probably explains why listening to Tessa Jowell enthuse about Get REAL is spookily akin to listening to an Alice-band mum explaining why she's put little Johnnie down for Gordonstoun ("so character building").

Mind you, the Government might have a point. Sad to say, the last time a significant number of my contemporaries were of African or Asian origins, they were boarders at my secondary school in Sevenoaks.