Why do schools have such long holidays?

First published on Brand Republic - 23 Aug 2011

Last week, I was invited by Edelman PR, to contribute to a podcast on ‘the silly season‘. Edelman use these podcasts to discuss issues of the day and place them on their website to broadcast to clients and staff.

My co-panellists were Jim Grice, who runs the Press Association video operation and John McEntee, Editor of Richard Kay column for the Daily Mail.

For me, I must admit the silly season has not been a subject I had given a great deal of thought to or, frankly, have felt I have had to consider much in my career.

As someone whose speciality has been the optimisation of paid-for, rather than editorial, media space the main issue raised by the silly season has been the media effectiveness and value of space booked. Even then, rates paid have reflected the size and profile of the audience reached during the period. What’s the issue?

Clearly, if the silly season really is a serious business dynamic about which I would be required to show some knowledge, I would have to spend some time on research.

I was surprised to find a Wikipedia page dedicated to the subject which shows the silly season to be an international phenomenon and a recognised social dynamic since the 19th Century.

Within the subject, there are important cultural matters to consider:

– in Germany, the silly season is known as the sommerloch, the ‘summer hole’

– in France, they have la morte saison, the ‘dead season’

– in Spain, it is the serpiente de verano, the ‘summer snake’

– in Sweden, the silly season is rötmånadshistoria and Finland mätäkuun juttu both literally meaning ‘rotting month’ (because your food goes off more quickly than it does in winter)

– so naturally, in many countries, the silly season references gherkins or pickled cucumbers: komkommertijd in Dutch, Danish agurketid, Norwegian agurktid, Czech okurková sezóna, Polish sezon ogórkowy, Hungarian uborkaszezon, Hebrew onat ha’melafefonim and Estonian hapukurgihooaeg.

Fascinating eh?

If ever there were a case for counties within the EU to maintain and protect their individual cultures and identities, surely we have found it.

Rotten cucumbers must become more prominent in the political agenda.

What have our politicians been missing? Oh sorry, they are all missing. Gone off.

Thus it was with some trepidation that I made my way to the smart Edelman offices. How could I provide my uniquely deep and meaningful insights into human behaviour, innovation and ‘upstream’ consumer thinking to such a silly subject?

In the event, I had nothing to fear. Thanks to the wisdom of my co-panellists, it became clear that the silly season really is a serious issue to those responsible for creating editorial content in both written and visual media.

They are desperate for something to say.

Bereft of movie premieres, glitzy product launches, and celebrity revelations, there is a real need for the newspapers to fill their pages. John McEntee complained he had been invited to only one launch party in the last two weeks – diddums!

So silly has been the season, and so short have they been of news, that such erudite newspapers as The Guardian and The Independent have featured articles on the subject (just as, in a PR agency, we were discussing it last week).

And the broadcast media has to travel to such unseen corners of the nation as Norfolk to track down politicians in polo shirts in their desperate search for a story.

But hasn’t the internet, on which rolling news editorial material is freely available, changed all this?

Isn’t it time to chuck our rotten cucumbers onto the compost heap and re-consider this whole silly silly season concept?

Shouldn’t we be asking ourselves why, in this day and age, the silly season exists at all and structure our society accordingly?

Why is Parliament in recess for such a long time?

Why do our schools have such long holidays?

Because, in the real world, the silly season doesn’t exist at all – and it never has.

Some of the world’s most important events have occurred in rotten cucumber time: the Great Train Robbery in 1963, the murder by the IRA of Earl Mountbatten in 1979, the Hungerford massacre in 1987, the Iraq invasion of Kuwait in 1990, the death of Princess Diana in 1997, flash floods in Cornwall in 2004, Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and, now, riots at home and tumultuous events in Libya – and so it goes on.

In the podcast studio, I tried, rather unsuccessfully, to generate some interest in the insight that babies born in August rather September have to bear an educational disadvantage for life. This will be the case with Florence Rose Endellion Cameron – born prematurely, in case she ever forgets, in Cornwall in August last year.

Since the podcast, I have been thinking of my own birth, which I happen to know was in Hong Kong, despite being given the name Hugh, which I have always hated.

At that time, my father had been posted by his London-based business to the Far East and his holiday arrangements were three years on, six-months off.

Roll forward thirty years, I am managing Ogilvy Thailand and my father has retired.

My parents came out to Bangkok and Dad said he would be interested in a visit to my office.

WPP had just taken over O&M and introduced a financial discipline which required us to send our cash-at-bank statement to Farm Street at the end of the day in Bangkok but morning in the UK, so that this cash could be used during the day in London while we were asleep in Thailand.

The same applied to correspondence. If I asked a question of London in the evening my time, I could expect the answer on my desk the next morning. We used these things called fax machines.

My father was horrified!

In his day, from Hong Kong, he would write a letter to London, it would wait for the next ship to arrive, sail to Singapore, Colombo, India, up through the Suez Canal and across the Mediterranean to Southampton from where it would be posted to London. The reply, once written, would take the reverse route in what was no less than a six-month process.

To him, this overnight stuff was unthinkable. But, inevitably, the world had changed.

And, in the few short years since then, the world has changed again. As I posted on 3 December, 10 December and 17 December, the year 2010 represented the coming of age of the digital era.

And the negative social consequences of what has been called the silly season have been shown to be too great.

We have to recognise this and re-arrange our lives accordingly.

The time has come for shorter school holidays, which should be two weeks at a time with a maximum of six a year.

The debts we are loading upon our university students are outrageous. University courses should be two years not three, again with much shorter holidays.

And the same principle must apply to Parliament which, like everyone else, must limit recess two weeks at a time with a maximum of four a year.

In business, our special friends in America only get two weeks holiday a year – period.

I am afraid it is time for teachers and politicians to get real.

This silly, silly season must stop right now.

About Hugh Salmon

Business leader. Adman. Writer.
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