The school summer holidays are just six weeks of hell for working parents

A charity says the current calendar dating back to Victorian times is unfit for purpose – and the summer break should be cut from six weeks, to four. I couldn’t be more in favour, writes parent-of-two Victoria Richards...

Tuesday 27 February 2024 10:29 GMT
I’ve managed to factor in just two days of ‘holiday sports camp’ for my kids so I can go into the office, but I can’t afford any more than that
I’ve managed to factor in just two days of ‘holiday sports camp’ for my kids so I can go into the office, but I can’t afford any more than that (Corbis)

“Summer holidays 2024” is the title of the online spreadsheet – yes, you read that correctly – that my ex-husband and I have been forced to create in order to figure out what the hell we are going to do with our children in a few months’ time.

That’s right, folks, the moment we’ve all been dreading is looming all too fast, like the rest of this helter-skelter year: it’s the school summer holidays... aka a month and a half of sheer hell for working parents. Even worse: there’s Easter and May half-term to get through, first. I’ve only just recovered from the Balloon Museum over the February break... (top tip: don’t bother).

But now there are calls to shorten the six-week summer break – and I couldn’t be more in favour. Educational charity The Nuffield Foundation is set to publish a study on overcoming post-pandemic learning disparities, which will recommend changing the current “Victorian” state school calendar.

It says the current system is unfit for purpose – and recommends slashing one (the endless summer break) and extending half-term holidays from one to two weeks (I guess you can’t have everything).

But before you call me a misanthrope who doesn’t care about her kids (or their hard-working teachers) taking time out from learning, allow me to explain – parents like me don’t dread the long break because we love doing the school run; nobody loves that, unless you’re a masochist who actually gets a kick out of asking small humans if they’ve got their shoes on 15 times at 8am, and you find it fun to foolishly think everyone is ready to leave the house only to realise that you forgot to make a “Brazilian shaker instrument” out of dried lentils and a plastic water bottle, because it’s “Brazil Day” today, didn’t you read the newsletter?

And no, you didn’t read the newsletter, you never read the newsletter, you never have time to read the newsletter, which is why it’s 8.15am now and you’re scrabbling around for some yellow lycra leggings and a green and blue T-shirt that’s size 3-4 years old but still in the drawer, and your son is almost eight, and one day (maybe) you’ll actually get around to sorting out his bedroom – except you know you won’t.

And you’re barking at him to “just find a crayon and make a Brazil flag”, which is a perfectly normal request, so why is he doing the splits? Nobody asked for that – it’s not time to practice a gymnastics routine, it’s time to make a Brazilian shaker instrument for the LAST DAY OF TERM OF COURSE, because there’s a party, and it’s Brazil-themed, and oh yes, “I also need a plate of party food – but I can’t share it, because of Covid, so you need to separate out all the sweets and crisps and wrap the plate in clingfilm.”

By now it’s 8.20am, but it’s going alright; it’s time to leave the house – it’s tight but everything is working, you might not actually get a late slip this time, which is a good way to mark the start of the spring term, a solid way – except that you then walk into the living room to find your splits-loving child is standing there completely naked, asking you to help him “find his Ninjago costume”. Give me strength.

So, no – I don’t miss the all-out tsunami of chaos that is the daily school run, but I am dreading the summer holidays all the same. Because it’s virtually impossible to make it work and go to work, and I don’t know how anyone does it. On my family’s shared Google Sheets spreadsheet we have columns in green marked out when I’m on duty, columns in blue when their dad is on duty, the occasional sparing column in yellow where we’ve managed to rope in a grandparent – but one set lives three hours away, and it must be even harder for parents with no support at all; for single parents or those with family they still haven’t managed to see, living abroad.

I usually manage to factor in just two days a week of “holiday sports camp” so I can go into the office, but I can’t afford any more than that – summer childcare for one child (per day) is £30, let alone two. It barely makes it worth working over the summer at all, except that if I had to think of daily activities every day for my children for six long weeks I’d be completely stressed and bankrupt. Better to tick just one of those illustrious boxes off, rather than both at once. All my sympathies to stay-at-home mums, dads and carers – because it’s far, far easier to be at work.

There are days when my children (aged 12 and seven) are just going to have to amuse themselves at home without me being around – in a mental or emotional sense, though I’ll certainly be tearing my hair out in physical form as I try to write while simultaneously being asked for snacks 372 times an hour.

Sometimes I look back and wonder how on earth we got through months of lockdown, and then I realise that we didn’t; that it was horrendous for all of us, including parents – those working or non-working or freelance or those sick with Covid or those grieving or feeling the strain of trying to homeschool as well as making a living and looking after themselves to boot – but people love to tell people with child-caring duties that they’re doing a bad job; we simply can’t get it right or be good enough, and it’s not really any surprise that I got shamed during lockdown for sharing this tongue-in-cheek flowchart I made my kids.

My favourite of the ridiculous eye-rolling responses is from those who say, “well – you chose to have children” – but that doesn’t solve the problem of the achingly long summer break in offices or workspaces or in retail or hospitals or in basically any industry in which human beings with small children work, which is a lot of us, so it’s really quite a pointless thing to say and doesn’t help anyone.

I’m far from alone in feeling dread over the end of term: I hear the collective cries of despair echoed through various school and friend-based WhatsApp groups as we wrangle and bid, barter and swap days. I’ve already agreed to take a friend’s two kids (and expect my sanity levels to be duly lowered when caring for four children under 12) for a few days while she works; she’s having mine while I do the same. We’ve taken paid and unpaid holiday, we’re going on day trips and adventures, we’re currying favour with playdates and park outings – all while trying not to go completely skint from the blasted ice cream van.

What’s the answer? Well, we could listen to this new report and make the summer holidays shorter, we could make it four weeks instead of six (two would do it perfectly but teachers need a proper break, too) – or the government could actually stump up some proper support for parents, for a change. After all, a report found that working mothers are disproportionately affected by the summer break, with nearly two-thirds struggling to find enough childcare for the holidays – following on from the way women were adversely impacted overall by the pandemic.

As for me? I’m at work, today. The kids are at school. I better enjoy these last few moments of quiet while I’ve got them.

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in