The Guardian view on summer holidays: a good break is not a luxury | Editorial

Inequality grows when school terms finish, and tackling ‘holiday hunger’ is not enough

Many parents as well as children look forward to the last day of term, even if balancing work and childcare or occupying young ones can be difficult. July and August are when most of us take our longest breaks from work, to travel, visit and spend time with our families and friends. At such key moments as the end of primary school, summer puts the full stop on a stage of life.

But if many people spend weeks planning and peering at maps, for others the holiday is a challenge of a different sort. Last year, MPs warned that up to 3 million children risk going hungry, due to their reliance on free school meals, while a 2013 study found that 30% of people were unable to afford a holiday of any sort. The uncomfortable truth is that, while many of us feel at our most free and joyful over the summer, holidays are also when the experiences of rich and poor families are furthest apart. Where some anticipate weeks of adventure, others see endless blank days to fill.

Summer learning loss”, whereby children’s academic progress goes into reverse when they are off school, is more pronounced in low-income families. When he was education secretary, Michael Gove gave schools the power to set their own term dates, in the hope that this would lead to shorter holidays, boosting attainment and reducing this polarising effect. But while several areas have shifted a week here or there, very few have made more drastic changes.

In some European countries, vouchers and other publicly funded programmes aim to make holidays accessible to people who could not otherwise afford them, and help to match low-cost supply with demand. Research has shown that subsidised trips for retired people in Spain help protect off-season jobs in tourism. In the UK, such “social tourism” is the preserve of the voluntary sector as it has been since Victorian times, when religious organisations and trade unions were among the first to offer trips to the country or seaside for workers and their children.

Inequalities are equally stark when families are at home. Summers offer time for the sports and arts activities that schools struggle to fit in. But private clubs and camps cost money, while many councils have cut their own holiday provision. One study found that nine out of 10 do not have enough places, with particular shortages in rural areas.

This summer will see several pilot projects aimed at tackling “holiday hunger”. Free playscheme places for children whose families cannot afford to pay for them should be rolled out nationally straight away. But progressive politicians, and all those who believe in the value of time off from school and work, should go much further, and find ways of expanding leisure opportunities. Members of the public questioned for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s annual Minimum Income Standard survey have consistently said that everyone should be able to afford an annual one-week holiday. They are right: the chance to get away is not a luxury. Everyone needs a break.

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