Diary of an ATE Mum

Cailtin was just 8 years old when I put her on a train and waved goodbye. The journey from London Paddington to Worcester lay ahead of her. She was with people she and I had met just 20 minutes earlier.  She could barely see out of the window of the huge intercity train but I managed to catch a brave smile and self-conscious little wave. I thought of the Paddington Bear she bought at the station and hoped that people would be nice to her.

It was hard to stop waving as the train pulled out. I knew she could no longer see me. ‘I didn’t think it would be so hard’ I said to another parent, grateful I wasn’t left alone. She too, it transpired, had made that transitional journey when she was a child. We both went on ‘Colony Holidays’ as children. I had been 9 years old in 1971 when, excited but a bit bewildered, I waved goodbye to my own parents and boarded a coach to a castle in Scotland.

We both knew, the other mother and I, that what we were doing at Paddington Station was completely the right thing for our daughters. We both knew that our children were in the best hands. We knew that our children would be in small groups supervised 24 hours a day by young friendly enthusiastic ‘monitors’ – children are never left alone. We knew the environment was totally safe, physically and emotionally. We knew she would be staying in a lovely country house with a swimming pool and lots of grounds to explore.

We spoke about the huge role that Colony Holidays played in our childhoods, about the confidence we gained, about the weeks of fun which we dreamed about during the rest of the year.

I have no hesitation in accepting the huge debt I owe to Colony Holidays for nurturing my confidence in life. I would not be the barrister and mother I am today if my parents had not been brave enough to send me on Colony Holidays as a child.

I had always hoped to be able to send my own children on Colony Holidays, so when my elder daughter turned 8, I tried to find out more. It turned out that Colony Holidays had changed its name to ATE Superweeks but that Chris Green, the driving force behind Colony Holidays, and energetic inspiration to so many people, was still involved. I contacted Chris and told him how happy I was that my daughter was able to enjoy what I had enjoyed nearly 40 years ago.

Like other children, I went on various activity holidays and summer camps whilst my parents were working.  But none was like a Colony Holiday. It makes a huge difference that holidays are run by a charity. Because ATE is not a commercial organisation it doesn’t have to seek to attract business by offering a competitive whirlwind of glossy taster activities for children. ATE is free to concentrate on the simple joys of friendship and real childhood moments – there is plenty of time for exploring the beautiful grounds of a country house or castle, making dens, having hot chocolate round a fire, making things and generally enjoying lots of structured, often hilarious and exciting indoor and outdoor games. All the people running a Superweek do it for the love of children and real childhoods. The monitors are volunteers, often trainee teachers, and there is a rigorous selection process for the residential training course. There is a paid experienced Director and Assistant Director on each Superweek and a matron on every holiday who is usually a trained nurse.

Chris Green is still active in ATE and still campaigning for children to have real childhood holidays. He emailed me last year and said: “I firmly believe that if we could have a really good national programme of such holidays it would address very many of the problems which beset our society, and it would also offer as an important by-product better teachers and better parents coming from the young people who trained as monitors to look after them all”. He said he was inspired by a belief in education and childhood in the way some people believe in religion, and that he wanted to work for a world where every child can have a happy childhood which is also a platform for developing into a creative and imaginative adult.

Caitlin came back from her holiday bounding with enthusiasm. She had a wonderful time. She had had the opportunity to really be herself, away from family and friends at home. She has the confidence of knowing that she can make friends with adults and children wherever she goes in life She knows she can have a great time, without TV, ipod, Nintendo or other gadgets. She can invent games to play with her sister, and sing new songs. She is up for tackling lots of new activities and opportunities in and out of school. Most of all she had fun in a safe and nurturing environment where the children’s happiness really does come first and she can’t wait for the summer to begin.

Caitlin’s little sister missed her, but loved having the attention of both parents whilst she was away, and made a beautiful homecoming banner. ‘You are so brave’ said a friend, ‘sending your child off on holiday on her own with strangers’. I thank my parents for being ‘brave’ when I was a child (although they did not think about it in those terms 40 years ago when expectations and fears were different). I know that no-one on a Superweek is a stranger. And I know that it is worth it.

Jo H, Caitlin’s Mum

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