21 Apr '13

News Why Michael Gove wants to cut the 'tattie school holiday'

The education secretary says long holidays hark back to a world that no longer exists, citing a time when children picked potatoes during half-term

Michael Gove wants to shorten school holidays, saying they were designed back when the UK still had an agricultural economy, and cites the "tattie holiday" as an example. The extra-long October halfterm in parts of Scotland got its name because it was "the period when kids would go to the fields to pick potatoes", he explains. Such holidays, he insists, represent "a world that no longer exists". Yet schoolchildren were still pulling up potatoes in the "tattie holiday" in the mid-1980s, when the process was mechanised. And many remember it fondly.

Peter Rhodes, who grew up in the Black Isle, north of Inverness, said he and his friends, from the age of about nine, would pick potatoes from 7.30am until 4.30pm for a week, for £9 a day. "It sounds Dickensian, but it was just something to do," says the 36-year-old lawyer. "You would be picked up outside the village pub and jump onto a flatbed trailer pulled by a tractor.

"Potatoes are planted in lines, or drills, and each drill was sectioned off. A tractor would drive down and turn over the potatoes and you would have to scuttle from the top of the drill to the bottom with a washing basket, picking up the tatties. When you got to the bottom the tractor would drive up the next drill; and you would have to scamper up again."

It was exhausting work: "You might start bending over to pick, but by the end of the day I would be crawling along on my hands and knees, with my wellies scooping up mud. That'd get compacted at the bottom of my wellies so I couldn't get them off myself."

But he insists it was fun messing around with his friends. And the farmer's wife would give them homemade soup (always with tatties in, of course). Plus the money seemed an impressive amount for primary schoolchildren.

"On the Friday you'd get dropped off with your pay packet, a couple of bags of tatties and some turnips to drag home to your mum," he says. "It did seem like a lot of money. I spent it on treats for my pony, and sweets."

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