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From the NS archive: Making sense of summer

17 February 1961: Why the English summer is overdue for reform.

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In 1961, summer was a problem. Norman Mackenzie looked at the problem confronting the road, rail, air and hotel industries when, each year, they had to deal with a sudden and huge increase in numbers rather than a more orderly spread. He proposed, among other things, a reordering of Bank Holidays to make better use of early summer, a staggering of the holiday period, and, most importantly, a rethinking of the school term and its exam system. “The British public may seem conservative in its vacation habits,” said Mackenzie, “but I doubt whether it would be difficult to induce people to take holidays when the weather is better and the days are longer.”

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Ninety years after Sir John Lubbock gave us the August Bank Holiday the English summer is overdue for reform. It is not merely the difference between our holiday habits and our weather that calls for a change in those habits, though year by year the months of June and July are sunnier than August. Reform is becoming a matter of economic common-sense, and the arguments for it are far stronger – and are supported by more powerful interests – than those against it.

Consider, first, the simple arithmetic. Every year the number of people taking holidays increases. Since 1955 when the total was 24.8 million, it has risen to something over 30 million in 1960 and almost half these holidaymakers go away between mid-July and mid-August. Though about one in ten goes abroad, these figures mean that our own roads, railways and hotels have to cope with a seasonal peak of at least 12 million holidaymakers in one month. The result is both the personal discomfort of overcrowding and the economic cost of catering for a peak demand that is so concentrated.

In the peak periods, for instance, BEA carries almost twice as many passengers; one quarter of all railway passengers (the commuter traffic excluded) are moved in July and August; and these are the weeks of chaos on the roads. If no more than one family in four could be enabled to move its holidays away from the peak it would at the same time ease the pressure on transport and accommodation and make the railways and the hotel trade more profitable.

This much of the case for staggered holidays can be proved statistically and it explains why the holiday industry and the public carriers have been urging reform upon the government. But there are a number of difficulties beside the inertia of old habits. And the first of these is the Bank Holiday that was socially so necessary in the generation when there were no holidays with pay and for most workers no holidays at all.

The August holiday is the hinge on which our vacation patterns turn. If it were to be moved to the end of August or early September the way would be open for other changes: purely as a matter of timing an early autumn holiday, such as the American Labour Day, is a good idea. And though the proposal for a fixed Whitsun holiday runs into religious problems, that too would be more convenient – not least for the transport and hotel industries which would then have a regular date on which to open their summer season. At present four per cent of families take May holidays; 14 per cent in June, 33 per cent in July, 35 per cent in August and nine per cent in September. An ideal distribution would be to bring the May total to about 10 per cent; June to 20, July and August to 28 and September back to 10.

How could this be achieved? The British public may seem conservative in its vacation habits, but I doubt whether it would be difficult to induce people to take holidays when the weather is better and the days are longer. The two most important obstacles, once the decision about a Bank Holiday was taken, would be the dates at which firms require their employees to take their holidays and the rhythm of school terms and examinations. A survey by the Industrial Welfare Society has shown that two-thirds of all the employees in Britain had to take a fixed holiday: they went off when their works closed. Where firms staggered holidays it was due much more to their own business interests, because they had a continuous process or were a service industry, than to any desire to help spread the vacation period. If closures followed the Lancashire wakes-week pattern, where mill-towns shut down in an orderly series through the summer months, this would be just as useful as staggering the holidays of individual employees.

Yet to do either, industry would need, as the National Union of Manufacturers has requested, an equivalent change in school holidays. For this is the key to the whole problem. It could be done, as the National Union of Teachers has proposed, by spreading school holidays from mid-June to mid-September, possibly by regions or even by types of school. A longer school holiday in the middle of the year, as happens in some European countries, with shorter holidays at Christmas and Easter, does not seem either necessary or a desirable solution to the problem. For one thing, apart from the opposition it might encounter among teachers, it would add to the difficulties the holiday weeks already create for the increasingly large number of working mothers.

Administratively it would be simple to shift the whole cycle back one month; it would be rather harder to devise a satisfactory way of spreading the holidays. But in either case a change would have to be made in the examination calendar.

Personally, I would regard such a change as one of the strongest arguments for reform. At present we require children to prepare and sit for crucial examinations at the secondary, and later at the university level in the most pleasant months for outdoor activity and often the hottest season. There then follows a terrible scramble to get papers marked, while the entrants wait to know their results before they will be sure what kind of job they can hope to get or whether they will, for example, be accepted by the university or some other form of advanced training. The selection process is already too cramped, and with increasing numbers seeking entrance it will get worse.

Why should we not move GCE at least back to March or April? The argument that the subsequent term would be wasted does not impress. On the contrary, far more effective use might be made of it, both for those who will leave at the end of it for jobs and those who have to prepare for a university career. Of course reform has wide implications, but most of them seem to me patently beneficial. Looking at the weight of evidence for change, all of which has been considered by the Board of Trade committee that sent its report to Mr Maudling recently, I find it hard to understand why he gave such dusty answers recently when asked in the Commons what he proposed to do. Is the report to be suppressed? And is that because it proposed reform? Why should the government shirk what could, after a period of adjustment, prove a popular change? It can do little about our climate, but quite a lot about the way we could get the best out of it.

Read more from the NS archive here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)