LONG school summer holidays date back to a time when pupils were needed to help out on farms and should be scrapped, a poverty expert has said.

Lindsay Graham, a child food poverty policy advisor, said the seven week break hit poor pupils hardest because they could fall behind with their studies.

There are also additional costs for parents which are more acutely felt by low income families, such as providing meals.

Read more: Cut school summer holidays to help poor families cope

The issue was raised as part of an inquiry into the impact of poverty on attainment by the Scottish Parliament’s education committee.

In a written submission to MSPs Ms Graham said: “I do respectfully suggest that a radical rethink of term times and the use of school premises is something the committee should consider.

“Our current approaches to child poverty are not working and if we are to improve education attainment in Scottish schools then we need to look beyond the school gates to help children stay well, happy and engaged in their communities.

“Our school holidays were set in motion over 100 years ago to suit timings with harvests. In a modern society this is no longer the norm yet we still have long holiday spells where children become disengaged from social support and the will to learn.

“We also have long periods when some of our best equipped and most child friendly community assets lie empty. I think that is a travesty and missed opportunity for Scotland to reclaim its world standing in education.”

Ms Graham also called for the provision of holiday meals for children who normally access them free in term time as well as free activities.

She added: “Many of those living in poverty may have been socially isolated, not had access to regular meals, limited outside play or physical activity and little of the fun that other more privileged children might experience during the breaks.

“We know from early research here in the UK that the combination of these does affect children’s ability to learn.

“Also time taken by teachers to bring children living in poverty back up to speed often can take weeks and impacts on whole class achievement.”

Concern over the impact of summer holidays on poor families has been highlighted in a number of recent reports.

Read more: Cut school summer holidays to help poor families cope

Research in 2015 by the Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland concluded: “Families on low incomes experience a range of challenges during holiday periods, including financial pressures and difficulties in sourcing childcare or holiday activities which are accessible, affordable and fit with parental employment and the needs of the family.

“This can lead to practical and emotional difficulties for parents and less likelihood that children from low income households access stimulating, enjoyable and beneficial experiences throughout the holidays.”

Dr Terry Wrigley, poverty expert and visiting professor at Northumbria University, called for new initiatives to help out disadvantaged families.

He said: “Strategy should be developed for free provision of activity schemes with a mix of physical and leisure activity, excursions, help with literacy and numeracy, library, challenging computer games and so on,” he said.

And Lorna Walker, a former inspector of schools in Scotland, also called on councils to consider a shake up of school term patterns “so that learning is not lost during long summer holidays”.

Although experts often link the origins of the long school summer holidays to the agricultural requirements of the Victorian era the issue is unclear.

Some believe families required their children’s labour in the summer to pick fruit and farm the land, but there are no long holidays during the autumn when the traditional harvest would have been brought in.

In addition, many 19th century state school systems were driven by the demands of an urban population, rather than rural and other theories suggest the longer summer break came from middle-class families wanting to get out of the unhealthy, overheated cities.

Another theory is that the school holidays followed the pattern of other institutions, such as universities and law courts.

Some schools have already changed the length of the summer holidays to make them shorter.

In Leeds, the David Young Community Academy operates a seven-term year with a shorter summer break, and, in Manchester, the East Manchester Academy experimented with a five-term structure with a four-week summer holiday for a while, but has now reverted to a six week break

International evidence on the impact of long holidays on attainment is unclear.

Liechtenstein, with a six-week summer break, has the highest maths results in Europe, according to the international Pisa tests run by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

But the best in Europe at reading are youngsters in Finland and Ireland, who have some of the longest summer holidays.