Skip to main content
Children holding hands in a sunny meadow

Why do UK schools have such a long summer holiday?


For children and their teachers, the summer holiday means at least six weeks of freedom away from the classroom. For everyone else, especially parents, summer holidays are a mixed blessing, if a blessing at all.

So, why do we have them? To answer that, we need to step back in time.

UK schooling before the 1880s

One of the first-ever schools, possibly the oldest that survives to the present day, was the fee-paying King’s School in Canterbury, founded in 567 by St Augustine. Its purpose was to teach Latin to the sons of the aristocracy, kick-starting the phenomena of church schools.

Grammar schools appeared in 1150, like Winchester College and Eton founded in 1382 and 1440 respectively, and these were independent from church control. Again, only the sons of the wealthy could afford to attend.

In the 17th century, boarding schools for privileged girls began to creep into existence. The initial curriculum of writing, arithmetic and music was soon compromised by the patriarchy that blighted the Georgians. Now the girls’ education focused instead on domesticity in readiness for an adulthood in confinement.

As for school holidays in the days before the 17th century? We only know that days off would have been dictated by saints’ days and religious festivals. However, that’s not to say that there weren’t secular summer holidays for the small number of schoolchildren in education.

The Grand Tour

It’s been debated that the 18th-century fashion for voyaging overseas to visit the cultural hubs of Europe, better known as The Grand Tour, was the original summer holiday, but these were only enjoyed by the same privileged few that were privately educated. We might argue that the structure of the private school curriculum could have incorporated a summer break to allow for these indulgent foreign excursions. Good for them, but what about the majority of the UK population?

The Education Act

Everything changed with the Education Act of 1880. It made it compulsory for all children aged five to ten to attend school, but it wasn’t free, so the lower class had to wait until 1891 when school fees were abolished. From here on in schooling became a part of day-to-day life for every child. Meanwhile, things were changing for the parents of this new generation of schoolchildren.

The Factory Act

Throughout the 1800s and right up until the beginning of the 20th century, dozens of Factory Acts were implemented, each gradually providing employees with better working conditions, while permitting more time away from the proverbial, or literal, coalface. And there were more things to see and do for our Victorian forebears in their new-fangled leisure time.

The Bank Holidays Act

By the time the Bank Holidays Act was passed in 1871, Britain had about 13,500 miles (21,700 km) of railroad. The act made Easter Monday, Whit Monday, the first Monday in August and Boxing Day public holidays, and what better way to spend them than travelling to the seaside by train?

The family summer holiday

The Holidays with Pay Act of 1938, which entitled workers to a week’s paid leave, heralded the dawn of what we recognise today as the family summer holiday. Before this, only the well-off could afford to take time off with their loved ones. Now family summer holidays could be enjoyed by pretty much everyone. But that still doesn’t answer the question of why schoolchildren have such long summer holidays.

The agriculture theory

One of the most popular answers is that children took a break in the summer to help out in the fields. There may be some truth in this, but not necessarily as it’s commonly perceived. For a start, the structure of the school system as we know it wasn’t implemented until the end of the 19th century when the industrial revolution had already taken many children out of the country and into cities.

These children had been effectively replaced with technology, now there were steam-powered traction engines to help with the leg work out in the fields. Not that they needed so much help in the summertime anyway, spring and autumn are the traditional seasons for sowing and reaping, so why take kids out of school in the summer?

Why do children have such a long holiday in the summer?

To help answer this, we need to visit our cousins across the pond. Specifically, US educational reformer Horace Mann. In the 1840s, Mann proposed that a long school break offered a respite for both teachers and children, going as far as to suggest that not having a long break could lead to children suffering nervous disorders. Summer was the obvious time for the break because the stifling heat was neither conducive to learning nor heat-related disease.

The idea caught on in the USA and arguably spread over the industrialised world. The heat certainly explains why Italian children have 13 weeks off in the summer and why Spanish kids take up to 12 weeks off.

But perhaps the real answer to the original question doesn’t even exist, because children have always had long summer holidays.

It’s not without logic to suggest that, up until 140-odd years ago with the passing of the Education Act, generations of children, even their families, took a relaxing break from the fields during the hottest periods between spring and autumn. Maybe even while their landlords and their children, also on a school break, were away on their own summer holidays in Europe.