Jane Bradley: Let children enjoy the fuller festivals

Moving the capitals festivals so children could enjoy them for longer would provide an alternative way to learn, along with economic benefits for performers and the city.  Picture: Ian Rutherford
Moving the capitals festivals so children could enjoy them for longer would provide an alternative way to learn, along with economic benefits for performers and the city. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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SCOTLAND’S school holidays mean pupils miss out on weeks of August fun, so let’s change the date, suggests Jane Bradley

It’s always a sad week. The posters are coming down; the flyer-pushers have departed Edinburgh’s High Street and the drama students have returned to the Home Counties.

The white tents have been dismantled and removed from Charlotte Square, prompting the annual Mary Poppins handbag-esque “how on earth do they fit a whole Book Festival in that tiny grassy space?” question from passers by. Thankfully the nightly Tattoo fireworks – of which long-time readers of this column will know, I am not a fan – have finally ceased, giving us city centre dwellers some night time peace.

But what I am most sad about is that next year, for my family at least, the festivals will end two weeks earlier. Next August will mark the beginning of my daughter’s first year at school. And, like thousands of other youngsters in Scotland’s capital city, she will have to curtail her festival fun to sit in a classroom while the world’s biggest arts festival – a veritable cultural extravaganza – is going on on her doorstep.

This year, I took plenty of time off work especially to make sure she could take full advantage of it.

She is four, so at an age where she can, for the first time, really appreciate the kids’ shows – from a youth theatre play of children’s classic The Secret Garden at the Fringe to Gruffalo creator Julia Donaldson’s entertaining performance at the Edinburgh International Book Festival.

We watched a trapeze show inspired by The Jungle Book and she snuggled up under a duvet while celebrating her friend’s fifth birthday party by watching the acclaimed Bedtime Stories at the Circus Tent.

All of this was squeezed in between plenty of picnicking in George Square, marvelling at the street performers lining the Royal Mile, and playing table tennis and making crowns at the free BBC tent. We spread the extravaganza of events out over the full four weeks – trying to pack it into less would have undoubtedly given us festival fatigue.

But the fact that this was her first and last proper, full-length festival hadn’t even occurred to me until I bumped into a friend while we were both busily engaged in constructing a pair of Peter Rabbit ears in the craft tent at the Book Festival. The children were stockpiling stickers while the festival lady’s back was turned. “Making the most of it, eh?” she remarked. “You won’t get the chance next year, might as well do it while you can.”

I stared incomprehendingly for a moment, then remembered that next year, school – signalling the end to our holiday freedoms – will start right in the middle of August and right in the middle of the festivals.

Indeed, the only school-age children who are available for the second half of Edinburgh’s fantastic festivals are those visiting from England, Wales, Northern Ireland or abroad, whose school holidays start and finish later. Also, the small but privileged proportion of youngsters who attend private schools with longer holidays.

Some of the festivals do what they can to make the most of the beginning of the school year. The book festival holds a Gala Day, welcoming more than 3,000 primary school pupils from across Scotland to a private day of events for children. I saw fun photos where the Book Festival press officer was dressed as Veruca Salt and her colleague as Little Red Riding Hood. It looked like fun.

In addition, many schools take class trips to see events at both the Book Festival and the Fringe, taking advantage of group discounts – and, admittedly, giving some children an experience they would perhaps not be able to have if the school term had not started.

Not every parent is lucky enough to be able to take their child to multiple festival shows which require a ticket. Many are not cheap. There are, however, plenty of events which are cheap – and hundreds are even free. While some of the paid-for shows are a real treat, any family can enjoy the festivals for nothing.

There is a growing educational movement towards learning by doing, rather than sitting in a classroom being instructed. Youngsters learn things better that way, we are told – they are more engaged, interested and retain information more rapidly.

And the festivals are a perfect opportunity to do just that.

Festival children are given the perfect introduction to plays by Shakespeare and stories by Jacqueline Wilson; their interest is piqued in reading new titles by fresh, exciting children’s authors and the wonders of live theatre. They are learning about circus skills and slapstick comedy.

Most of all, they are having fun and discovering new and exciting events – both artistic and entertaining – they would otherwise not have experienced.

Surely there must be some way to tweak things so that schoolchildren from Edinburgh and elsewhere in Scotland can spend more of their summer festivalling than sitting behind a desk.

As my Arts Correspondent colleague Brian Ferguson touched upon in a recent column, having more children around and available to buy tickets can only be a good thing, economically speaking, for the festivals. Indeed, many of the children’s shows started to wind down in the days after the Scottish school term began, presumably having calculated that their audience numbers were set to plummet accordingly.

Yes, traditionalists will argue that the Fringe is always held in August, but surely it could manage a move – not even a big move, just a slight shift to a week or two earlier.

The Edinburgh International Film Festival managed a switch to June for commercial reasons, therefore the other festivals could potentially take on the chin the hassle and upheaval for educational and altruistic motives.

Come on festivals, sort out the timings and give me, my daughter and the rest of the school age population another summer as good as this one has been.