Forget the camping holidays: just give the cash to schools

For Americans, summer camp is a rite of passage. Whether you're a scout, an inner-city kid whose fees are paid by a charity or simply the offspring of working parents; whether you're hiking, white water rafting or rock climbing, camp is regarded as one of the first and most essential steps towards self-improvement.

Summer camp is hailed for giving lessons for the future. Team spirit, survival skills, initiative - all are fuelled by a few nights in a sleeping-bag and a few days under open skies. Show me a boy who can build a fire with two Snickers wrappers and a can of Coke and I'll show you tomorrow's captain of industry. Or so the reasoning goes.

Some of us doubt that a fortnight among red ants can improve a youth as much as a fortnight studying Shakespeare or algebra. But the myth of the benefits of summer camp is so powerful that camp fever has crossed the Atlantic and infected David Blunkett. With the unflagging enthusiasm of a scout master, the Secretary of State for Education has decided that 16 year olds in England must take part in summer camps where they will experience mountaineering and "adventure-style holidays". The aim is to instil in young people a spirit of adventure and to "help them grow up more quickly". Chris Smith is also promoting the scheme - the Culture Secretary apparently hopes to fund it with National Lottery money.

If it weren't for the tragic state of education in this country - with thousands of children spending their schooldays amid crumbling buildings and a few dog-eared old books - the concept would seem as comical as an episode from Hi-De-Hi!. The spoon-feeding of summer plans is hardly calculated to inspire teenagers with a sense of adventure. The state as tour operator may be a novel notion in this country (though not in Germany, where the Nazis were very keen on similar schemes for fresh-faced Aryan youths in lederhosen) but it will group, co-ordinate and label the kids into the same docile herd found on any old package holiday.

Just as being shoehorned into an "adventure holiday" by nanny state will awaken in young people a strong suspicion that the government wants to monitor their every move and dictate their every action, it will signal to their mums and dads that parenting has become a job-share carried out in conjunction with the government. Many parents will be grateful, no doubt, that their offspring will be out of their hair for a fortnight or so. But it does seem a tad illogical to have on the one hand Jack Straw hold parents responsible for their truant children while on the other Blunkett and Smith propose to spirit them away for the summer.

Equally nonsensical is the thought of scoutmaster Blunkett wanting "our children to grow up more quickly". Study the kids who slope around sink estates or an urban centre at night and you quickly realise that these children don't need to grow up - they have already, and far too quickly. It is not adulthood they need, but childhood.

Then we come to the project being funded by the National Lottery. We always predicted that the National Lottery would give the government (whether the Tories' or Tony's) a perfect excuse to shirk from paying for all kinds of schemes: Lottery tickets, the only popular indirect taxes, have been quietly subsidising the arts, sports and charitable sectors since that first televised dropping of the balls. Now that the charade is over about what the Lottery is really for, we can ask why, given that the National Lottery can pay for summer camps, it can't contribute towards our dismally underfunded education system? Because, let's face it, not even the delicious snapshot of Blunkett and Smith wearing shorts and climbing mountains, blowing their whistles as they go, can dispel the niggling feeling that it might serve Jack and Jill rather more to know the three Rs when they leave school at 16 than to know how to toast marshmallows round a campfire. Otherwise, how will they keep count of how many they've eaten?