Why more time at school is not the answer

The proposal that educational achievement should be improved by increasing the amount of time young people spend in school is not a new one, and is by no means restricted to the UK. It’s been on Gove’s agenda since he came to power, and has recently raised its head again after Paul Kirby decided it would be the perfect promise to get the Tories re-elected. I’m not sure how, since I have yet to come across anyone who thinks it’s a good idea. Apart from Gove of course, who in ‘that‘ speech last week confirmed that ‘a future Conservative Government would help state schools … to offer a school day 9 or 10 hours long’. So much about his reasoning indicates a complete lack of understanding of what is currently going on in schools and the fundamental business of how children learn that I just couldn’t leave this one alone.

A review of the evidence indicates that extending the school day might just help to increase educational achievement. But not by much, not if the changes are unsupported by parents and staff and not if school time increases significantly – i.e. above nine hours a day. The financial cost is considerable, and the other potential costs to the wellbeing of all involved form a veritable minefield.

The initial reaction of most parents and teachers to the idea that school days should be longer and holidays should be shorter seems to be how on earth children are going to cope. Learning is an exhausting business, particularly when that learning is spread across a wealth of different subject areas and is continuously monitored and assessed. By the end of the school day, and as each holiday approaches, young people are genuinely in need of a break. Kirby’s argument is that the longer school day would allow for a slower pace, for a greater range of activities to balance out the school experience. I’ll come to my scepticism about that in a moment.

But first we cannot forget the teachers. They, too, would struggle to cope with a school day which saw them have any increased contact time with young people. When I was teaching my average working day was already at least ten hours – more often closer to twelve once work at home was factored in. Add in a few hours work on at least one day at the weekend and my working week was over 60 hours – despite a payslip which listed my hours as 32.5. I’m not detailing all this for your sympathy, but rather to point out one of the many ways in which Gove’s proposal is unworkable. My experience was by no means unusual – if fact I think in my ten years as a teacher I learnt every trick in the book as to how to cut the amount of hours I spent on the job. As a profession I loved it, but it consumed me. I needed every day of the holidays to keep on top of the workload and to rebuild relationships with friends and family that had to be put on hold during term time. And whilst I have total respect for those who manage to juggle teaching with having children of their own it is not something I can see myself doing until my son is considerably older – if at all.

Mr Kirby says that his ideas would actually improve the teacher’s lot rather than making things more difficult by providing time in the school day for all the additional work that fills the gap between the 20-odd hours of teaching time and the 60 hours spent working each week but I can’t quite see how he’d make that add up. He talks of all the non-academic activities that could be provided to enrich students’ experiences of school, but this is where my aforementioned scepticism comes in.

I mean, this is the Tories we’re talking about. What in anything Gove has done so far could make us believe that he would not slowly chip away at any ‘enrichment’ time in order to cram as many facts and exams and world-beating literacy and numeracy skills into an extended day as he possibly could? You only have to look at everything he believes to be important to know that the range of arts and sports activities he alludes to would never really be very high up his list of priorities.

Though ironically of course all of the enrichment activities he and Kirby purport to praise are very high up the list of priorities for most of the teachers I know. And this is one of the things that frustrates me most about the proposals: as with so much Gove says it indicates totally misplaced assumptions about what already goes on in schools. At the two schools I worked in for the majority of my teaching career – one in East London, one in Plymouth, both with ‘challenging’ intakes and neither ‘Outstanding’ as far as the government’s concerned – young people were already in school from 8am with breakfast clubs and study groups in place before the official start of the school day, and there were a wealth of activities on offer after school which would see kids in the corridors until 4, 5 even 6pm. I spent hours working with young people on a school newspaper – which they devised, secured funding for and ran in their own time – and a range of film projects, both as part of exam subjects and as extra-curricular projects. The schools ran mentoring schemes, drama groups, debating clubs and a full range of sporting activities – I know I’m only scratching the surface here but you get my point. And whilst most of these groups were voluntary, there were also compulsory study sessions for students to catch up on coursework or prepare for exams, or just to bring students in lower years up to their target levels. Other students might indeed head home at 3.15pm, but would be involved in all sorts of activities in the community, or they might just like to read, or, god forbid, hang out with their friends or family.

There are of course a minority of students who would use the time to make trouble, who would never do anything constructive with the hours that weren’t specifically mapped out for them, whose parents were unsupportive of their learning and who might just benefit from a heavy handed approach which would see ten hours of their day committed to whatever their school saw fit. But all of the work I have done over the years on raising expectations and achievement has taught me that very rarely can you do it by focusing on the lowest common denominator – and that if you do you very often lose the attention and the enthusiasm of the people you think are doing ok. More often than not there are pretty significant reasons why the minority are not able to focus on activities that will benefit them, are forever making the ‘wrong’ choices, will find themselves in trouble at school and in their community. Longer hours at school would not make their problems go away, and it would take a complete shift in focus on how those hours were spent to be able to begin to address the multitude of issues they face.

Time and time again the issues of troubled young people I worked with were found to be rooted in dysfunctional family units – I’m not talking about bad parenting, but a whole range of difficulties families were facing as they tried to bring up their children in a world often hostile to their needs. And one of the biggest things that worries me about these proposals for longer school days and shorter holidays is that they effectively normalise not spending time as a family. Kirby has a go at some sums in his piece, but he’s missing some figures. Even if we take the lower end of Gove’s intention, for nine hour school days, by the time you factor in getting to and from school you’re looking at more like ten. Add to that the actual recommended amounts of sleep for school age children rather than Kirby’s skimpy eight hours, and again you’re looking at an average of ten. Which leaves only four hours a day for everything else – not very much I think you’ll agree. Particularly if you combine this with proposals for children to start school from the age of two you’re looking at a population who become almost entirely institutionalised, have no idea how to fill their time for themselves, and have no time to even begin to work out who they might be.

Rather than focusing on ways of getting those pesky children out from under the feet of their parents so they can focus on the far more important business of work, we should instead be looking at ways to increase the amount of time families can spend together. When I was discussing all this with my Dad, a recently retired business leader, he found it bizarre that Gove’s emphasis should be on increasing the amount of hours parents can work when the business community is looking at ways to decrease everyone’s working hours. Even the Daily Mail acknowledges that spending too much time at work away from young children is the thing parents regret most, and studies show that the mutual benefit of spending time together as a family continues well into the teenage years. This definitely seems to be born out by the experience of most parents I know – opportunities for flexible hours, working from home and job shares are few and far between and mean that many people see much less of their children than they would like. The scary thing about Gove’s proposals is that by making these extended school hours a legal requirement then even the people who had managed to find a balance would suffer – short of home educating their kids, something which is not a realistic or desirable proposition for everyone, parents would be restricted to only those four hours a day that they could spend with their children as they pleased.

I am not disagreeing with the fact that a range of enrichment activities can be extremely beneficial for young people, helping them to find their passions and learn all sorts of skills that there is limited space for within the curriculum. But I strongly believe that enrichment opportunities for young people should be provided by the community, not just by schools in isolation. Looking at Gove’s preferred list of extra-curricular pursuits it seems strikingly narrow in comparison to all that is on offer from youth clubs and arts organisations and sports centres all over the UK. Or at least what used to be on offer before so many of these fantastic groups had their funding cut. By focusing on community provision young people would be able to mix with a range of people of all ages and backgrounds, and specialist centres could offer equipment and expertise that most schools could only dream of. Families could participate in activities together, and young people would have the satisfaction of seeking out the things that they want to fill their time with rather than just being told what to do.

Of course all of this still hasn’t addressed the very real need for individual time, for boredom, for unstructured play which would be the first casualty of longer school days and shorter holidays. So much research has shown that so much learning happens where it was least intended. Children need time and space for learning begun in school to embed itself, and if they are going to become genuine life-long learners then young people need space to develop their own passions and interests rather than the ones that others, however well-meaning, choose for them.

That brings me to my final point, the reason why these proposals are so insidious. Both Kirby and Gove and others who have spoken out in favour of extending the time that young people spend in school justify their ideas with a raft of rhetoric which makes it seem like they’re acting in the best interests of society. And so many of the people making the decisions about what happens to our communities are so detached from reality that they may be taken in by their promises of raised achievement, lower crime and a flourishing economy, and even be able to convince themselves that they really are acting in peoples’ best interests. That is why, though these proposals are not new, I think we should continue to beware them – and continue to listen to the very real concerns of the people they would really affect.

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