The length of the school day has always been a contentious issue. It has long been debated whether extending it would have an impact on children's educational achievements, either for better or worse: would the extra time allow for a richer educational experience, or would it cause pupils' minds to 'burn out'?
Although schools have slight regional variation up and down the country, the average length of the school day in the UK is from about 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. which includes 5 lessons, a morning break and lunchtime. Depending on each school's provision for extra-curricular activities, children may stay on after school (or before in some cases) for additional activities (often sports and interest groups). The question stands: Is the school day long enough? And perhaps to a lesser extent: How should we structure our school day?
Many people have voiced the opinion that the school day is too short and that it needs to be extended sufficiently so pupils will improve academically; a proposition that has cross-party agreement: Michael Gove recently voiced his preference for a 10 hour school day and Stephen Twigg, the Shadow Education Secretary, said that that children should spend more time in schools to prepare them for the world of work. Predictably, this was met with backlash from teaching unions who argued that this would stretch already overworked staff and reduce the quality of their performance.
The question you have to ask yourself is: in what job to workers clock off at 3:30 p.m? However, do we want to liken attending school to punching clocks and signing timesheets? Is there a way of lengthening the school day without doing this?
Compared to much of the world, the UK length for the school day is on a par with many other countries. However, many Asian countries - such as Japan and China - have longer school days: they typically run from 8-5, with study sessions and supported activities often running late into the evenings. In addition to this, they may have sessions on weekends, and holidays are often spent in study camps and summer schools. This approach does seem to pay dividends for these countries as they well known for their educational success and economic weight. Could a similar approach pay off in the UK?
To some extent, this has already been trialled here. Private schools often run beyond 5 o'clock as do many other selective institutions. However, these schools also benefit from increased funding and small class ratios (typically 8:1).
A more interesting example is that of Great Yarmouth primary academy in Norfolk. The school day at this school runs from 7:45 to 6 p.m, meaning it adheres to Gove's ideal of a 10 hour school day. Pupils can attend a free breakfast club from 7:45 a.m., lessons run from 8:55-3:30 and from then on pupils take part in compulsory extra-curricular activities like cello lessons, first aid, sport and even rocket engineering at Cambridge University. The really nifty bit is for the final hour of school pupils get help with homework. Cynics will note that this academy is sponsored by a millionaire and other schools will not be able to finance this approach. However, teachers don't actually have to take part in extra-curricular activities and the homework help is actually provided by teaching assistants who are of course paid considerably less than teachers. This rewards staff who put extra hours in and echoes the sentiments of Unison who are in favour of a banked hours scheme where staff are paid extra for additional hours they work. Results have improved at the school (it was once deemed a failing school by Ofsted) and, most importantly, the pupils seem to be enjoying it!
There is the obvious issue of whether this would leave children exhausted and robbed of valuable family time. However, in an era where both parents work longer hours than ever before and often get home late, would pupils be actually missing out at all? Could this sort of scheme act as a form of free 'childcare' for parents, keeping their children occupied and out of trouble?
Of course there are problems with this, the main one being whether staff would want to commit to these longer hours. However, from my experience with school staff, I've seen many who have been quite keen to take part in extra-curricular activities: it is a chance to get to know the pupils in a more relaxed, informal context. It also provides teachers with a break from the classroom and keeps them fresh for the next day. For pupils, it might make school seem more of a home environment, a fun place where they enjoy going. At every school I have worked, pupils have always loved extra-curricular activities. It could even be used as a behaviour management technique by removing privileges from pupils if they misbehave. Studies have also shown that pupils who take part in extra-curricular activities generally have better results than those that don't. Astonishingly, the Independent Schools Council (ISC) found that schools who offered 30 or more activities were more likely to have nearly 100% of pupils achieving GCSE grade B or above.
Implementing this approach would need a bit of creativity and may reduce the time for meetings and admin, but surely this would be beneficial for teachers and would allow them to concentrate on pupils more. Personally, I believe this approach should be applied throughout the school day as well as after school: before school, breaks and lunches you could have homework clinics and study groups which should be compulsory for pupils to attend. It keeps students occupied and stimulated and might even allow for a clearer division between school and home: completing homework and revising in supporting environments outside of lesson time will allow pupils to gain access to specialist approach which they can only benefit from. It might also allow pupils to have less work to do when they get home, leaving them time to relax.
Going down this route would generate some opposition: even the scheme at Great Yarmouth Academy motivated over 100 people to sign a petition against the scheme and 13 parents to withdraw their pupils. Any change will always produce conflict, but the long term benefit of this scheme would be huge. The most successful schools I have been to have been the ones which have extensive extra-curricular provision and which are also open to pupils on weekends and holidays to use the sports facilities (perhaps casually or something organised like a soccer school/holiday scheme), and also have events such as booster classes, revision sessions and summer schools. The least successful schools I have observed have been the ones where pupils cannot wait to get out of the door at home-time and rarely stay behind for any activities.
All of this seems to indicate there are certainly some benefits for extending the school day. With many authority figures also in favour of this, there could be a change in the school landscape soon. Food for thought indeed.
Sam is a second year student at the Lancaster campus of the University of Cumbria. He is training to be a secondary maths teacher and has worked in schools on numerous work and volunteer placements as a teacher and teaching assistant.