It’s a moment that all parents have to face: the first formal declaration of holiday independence. “Er, mum, dad, once GCSEs are over, I was thinking of heading off to Cornwall/Kavos/the Reading Festival with a few friends - that’s OK isn’t it?”
For most of us this scenario feels very far from OK.
Bringing up children, I’ve come to realise, involves 10 years of nurturing, protecting and shielding from harm, followed by 10 years of gradually casting off the reins and setting them free. The second decade is infinitely harder.
There’s the first night of unsupervised camping in the garden, the first solo bike ride to school, the first teenage party sleepover - and, toughest of all, seeing them off on their first holiday without adult supervision.
In our case, our son Henry, aged just 16, was hell-bent on going to Cornwall with a group of seven boys from school.
They’d found a cheap surf lodge in Newquay and couldn’t wait to hit the beaches and - though, naturally, they didn’t mention this - the nightlife. Everyone in his year was going away, he assured us; not a single parent had expressed doubt, and we’d blight his life forever if we said no.
Henry came home exhausted but happy, possibly on the brink of scurvy.
Every instinct made my husband and me want to refuse, to ask Henry to hold off for another year or so. This was not long after a 16-year-old boy, Paddy Higgins, died in a cliff fall after a post-GCSE night out in Newquay. Fearsome thoughts arose of rip currents, alcohol poisoning, and spiked drinks.
On the other hand, we had to give Henry the space to stand on his own feet and, perhaps, make his own mistakes. We knew and liked the boys he’d be going with; they were a close group and would look out for each other. We spoke to some of their parents, who had similar anxieties, but felt that we should trust them. We checked reviews of their surf lodge, which sounded grubby but not sinister, and extracted promises about keeping away from cliffs and currents. They were to text regularly.
It helped to know that the Newquay authorities had, since Paddy Higgins’ death, clamped down on underage drinking, and that the streets and beach were regularly patrolled during the GCSE summer migration.
And conveniently, the parents of one boy in the group would be on holiday that week just a few miles away. So, taking a deep breath, we said yes.
There were pursed lips from some parents we knew, who felt that 16 was much too young for an unsupervised holiday, and suggested that we were being naive, irresponsible and letting the side down. Perhaps they were right, I wondered all week. Were we taking a terrible risk by allowing the boys to go?
The moment at which you let your child fly solo has to be an individual choice for each family. If we’d had a wild, or a very unconfident child – who wouldn’t feel able to say no – perhaps we’d have decided differently. Alcohol, and unsupervised drinking, are a concern for parents, but while some teenagers can drink the town dry, others are pretty abstemious.
A friend’s 16-year-old daughter is off to a mobile home in Westward Ho! this summer with three girlfriends. “It’s their first trip without parents,” she told me, “but I’m pretty relaxed about it. None of them is really into drinking and the worst that’s likely to happen is that they fall out over which pizza topping to have.”
I’m not sure that Henry and his friends were abstemious, exactly, but in the end we felt we’d made the right choice. The boys had a whale of a time and Henry came home exhausted but happy, possibly on the brink of scurvy, and with his hair streaked a strange orange blond. He was also that bit more confident about managing on his own, while we as parents had moved another step towards letting go.
- Follow our expert's checklist of what to discuss with your teen about staying safe on a holiday with friends
Where to go on post-GCSE holidays
One way to help your child make a maiden bid for independence is to steer them in the direction of a (relatively) safe destination. Here are three options.
1. Music festivals
These are a popular choice for post GCSE trips –- with teenagers, if not parents. But before you resist, consider this: Latitude in Suffolk and the Reading Festival in particular are well run, with plenty of stewards and first aiders around, and the atmosphere is friendly and laid- back. Yes, there will be illegal drugs around, but that is the case in many places where teenagers gather.
Make your child aware of the risks and insist they go with at least one friend –and that they stick together. Remind them that smart-phones run out of battery; some festivals have charge tents where people can charge their phones, or you could send your child with a few power banks. Set expectations for communication. Weekend camping tickets at Reading cost from £205 per person (festicket.com).
Teenage camps are a good half measure if you don’t feel comfortable about your child making an unsupervised trip. Kingswood Camps runs supervised residential weeks for 15 to -17 -year-olds at Overstrand Hall in Norfolk, with activities including abseiling and bushcraft. From £199 pp inc most activities (01603 857204; camps.kingswood.co.uk).
Adventure holiday specialist PGL runs supervised residential holidays for children up to 17, with a separate group for 13 to 17 year- olds. Activities offered at their bases in Britain and France, include fencing, surfing, and watersports. From £279 for a three-night break in Wiltshire (0333 3 21 2114; pgl.co.uk).
Newquay’s laid-back surf culture makes it a classic post-GCSE choice, and local authorities have responded well to safety concerns: city support officers and police patrol town and beach during the peak migration, so your children will be under (friendly) scrutiny (see cornwall.gov.uk/newquaysafe for more detail).
Newquay Reef Surf Lodge (newquayreefsurflodge.co.uk) remains a popular choice for young people. Its rooms accommodate 2-6 (from £17.50 per person a night). Its well-marked spot on the under-18s’ tourist path helps to keep it safe.