Brian Ferguson: Time for rethink on timing of school holidays

CHANGE holiday times to open festivals up to school children, writes Brian Ferguson

School children are potentially the audiences and performing artists of the future. Picture: TSPL
School children are potentially the audiences and performing artists of the future. Picture: TSPL

There was something splendidly idyllic about the scene unfolding in front of me in the heart of Edinburgh’s Charlotte Square.

Beneath a deep blue sky, the book festival’s garden square was thronged with crowds lapping up the baking heat, queuing for cold drinks and ice cream, and chatting away merrily.

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As a sun-kissed snapshot of the Edinburgh Festival it was hard to beat.

Until it struck me that there seemed to be something missing.

I couldn’t help but notice the almost total lack of any anyone under the age of 18.

Now, I am fully aware that there are children’s events running until tea-time every single day at the book festival.

The event is rightly proud of its extensive schools programme, which gets underway in the second week of the festival.

And the day immediately after the fireworks have signalled the end of the summer festivals, the Charlotte Square site is actually taken over for a children’s gala day.

That same day last week my Facebook feed seemed to be filled with the posts of proud parents with pictures of their kids heading off for the first day of term.

I’ve not been the only one wondering aloud in the last few days why on earth Edinburgh’s schools still go back smack bang in the middle of the world’s biggest arts festival. Or more to the point, why do the bulk of Edinburgh’s main festivals start so close to the end of the school holidays?

I have lost count of the number of promoters who have complained in recent years about the notable decline in audiences in Edinburgh after the Scottish school holidays draw to a close.

I suspect much of this is a side-effect of the festivals becoming increasingly popular with locals over the last 10-15 years.

The local market now makes up a huge proportion of overall ticket sales - and with hundreds of children’s shows it is no surprise they notice a decline.

Almost everyone I know in Edinburgh with children takes them to festival events these days. I also know of many families from outwith the city who make at least one journey into the festivals each summer. Shows, museums, galleries and cafes are all high on their agenda.

Ensuring there are the maximum number of bums on seats or boosting the economic impact of festival visits from families strike me as equally vital.

But if is surely more important that there are no significant barriers to attending festival events.

Starting the main events less than a fortnight before the end of the holidays does not make much sense when there is proven demand there from audiences.

I can recall hearing rumblings on this issue around 10 years ago, but progress has been slow, especially over the Fringe, which boasts the bulk of family-friendly entertainment.

Its society was urged to seriously consider the issue last year by outgoing board member and new MP Tommy Sheppard at its AGM. The response has been lukewarm to say the least.

Securing consensus on timing major events to coincide with Scotland’s holiday period may appear impossible - but if the city and its main festivals are serious about extending their reach and influence then surely there should be some kind of open debate on the matter. After all, these are potentially the audiences and performing artists of the future we’re talking about.