Should we extend the school day?


There is hope isn’t there?

Although this winter will be long and tough and we must remain as careful and vigilant as ever my feeling is things might well return to something more recognisable as ‘old normal’ by spring.

 I really, really hope I’m right about this.

This is not to say all the associated problems will end then too. They will not. Every sector has been bruised by this once in a generation catastrophe.

In education we will be left with the long shadow thrown by interruption, with effects of lockdowns and shutdowns unevenly spread between areas, schools, groups and individuals. While we should not react hysterically to early data on how far children have fallen behind it is clear many have.

National attention is now turning away from short term ‘interventions’ and towards a longer game. This is a good thing. Most children are behind where they would be had it not been for the virus and we need to make bets on how we can accelerate learning to compensate when this is all over.

Some politicians and ‘commentators’ have been quick with opinions, making arguments that schools should increase instructional time by lengthening the school day and teaching at the weekend and during holidays. Such calls have been met with understandable unease from an already stretched sector that’s done far more than is widely understood.

But increasing instructional time shouldn’t be off limits for discussion.

At the beginning of this school year I wrote this piece arguing that “Catch Up” should be viewed more as a process than an event – something incremental that will happen through ground level responsive teaching in classrooms.

If I am right then it would be logical to assume more teaching time would lead to more learning, which should over a long period of time lead to pupils gradually ‘catching up’.

Increasing the amount of time children are in front of their teachers is – potentially – very big lever we could pull. Adding an hour to each day would mean five hours extra a week for most schools. Over a half term that’s an extra week. Over a year it’s six weeks. For Year 7 over five years that’s a whole extra school year.

This direction of thought has some evidential weight. One of the reasons it’s hard to really assess the impact of instructional methods in successful US charter schools is they typically have longer days than otherwise comparable schools – something acknowledged by responsible researchers. If teaching is effective surely more of it will lead to more learning?

Put simply children have lost lots of time. If and when this period ends it would appear entirely reasonable to suppose if we increase time in lessons then we can compensate.

Beguilingly simple.

But undeveloped and poorly thought through.

The problem with just going with such an approach is it is an idea and not a plan. In of itself and without specifics there isn’t actually anything to agree or disagree with.

Ideas are easy. Plans are hard and often it only becomes apparent an idea isn’t workable when you try to work it up into an actual plan.

Here are just some reasons it isn’t as easy as just increasing time in lessons through some sort of centralised edict, as hinted at by those loudest about the idea. .

  1. Teachers in England already work overlong hours.

This is not controversial. Workload is a well-understood reason for recruitment and retention problems. While some Trusts and schools have gone a long way to reducing it this has not yet happened at a sufficiently systemic level for us to be confident the sector can sustain a substantial increase in teaching time without negative consequences outweighing any benefit.

Extra teaching means extra administration, planning and feedback and the impact of this needs to be factored into any increase.

If teaching time were to be increased without proper consideration and meaningful action to reduce load elsewhere then the result might be more people leaving teaching than going in – especially if the economy improves.

We’d have extended timetables that schools would not be able to staff. Like Bilbo just before he leaves the Shire for the last time, we’d be too little butter spread over too much bread.

2. Five hours is already a long time for teachers.

As Matthew Hood points out here, teaching is best understood as a performance profession more akin to acting or making music than working in an office. It is both physically and mentally taxing as anyone who has ever tafaught a five period day will tell you. The cumulative effect of a lengthened school day might well be tiredness and an associated drop in teaching quality across all lessons; in this case any benefit of more time might bleed out. A similar problem would be caused by teaching at the weekends or holidays, which are periods used by teachers to recover and recuperate.

There is of course a particularly unpleasant and vicious line of argument suggesting that teachers haven’t done very much during lockdown. If this were true I suppose we could find these well rested layabouts and put them to work.

Good luck with that. I don’t know any.

In their absence – how typical we can’t find these slackers when we most need them! –  we’d need to find ways to increase timetables without exhausting staff. Those making blanket calls for longer hours in schools often use placatory but vague phrases such as ‘fully funded’, and more money could indeed turn this idea into a plan.

Unfortunately without more explanation it’s just impossible to say.

Details would be helpful. If – for example – ‘fully funded’ meant hiring more teachers so schools could provide more instruction without increasing hours on a timetable then that’s a good start, but invites new considerations; how exactly do we fund this? Where do we get these teachers from? If it means training more, or faster, how can we do this in a way that means we still maintain standards high enough to be worth the bother?

3. Five hours is already a long time for pupils.

Even were we able to find a ways to increase lesson time in schools without an associated drop in quality it still isn’t clear this would be the right bet to make.

There are logistical and practical considerations.

If schools extend school days later then in the winter it means pupils walking home in the dark. In some areas this might not be a problem but in others it might be. Pupils have different circumstances which would make such a solution acceptable to some but not others in the same class. This could be mitigated by sorting out transport or something else. There is more to do to work this out, and again how easy or difficult this is to do will vary.

Secondly as anyone who’s shadowed a pupil for a whole day knows well five hours is a long time to concentrate properly when lessons are demanding. Simply whacking a session on at the end of each day might well be a game of diminishing returns if pupils are too tired to focus for the last thirty minutes. It is at least worth considering whether increasing staffing in schools and focusing on increasing quality in the lessons they already have would have more of an impact than extending timetables.

Finally we should also consider what increasing instructional time is likely to mean for extra-curricular activities and off site visits, which happen before and after school, at the weekends and during holiday time. The result of increased teaching will inevitably be less of the things many children have missed most about school. This might be a price worth paying but we should all have considered this cost before we go full steam ahead.

There’s much, much more to say about all the things that need to be worked out but this is already a lengthy post so I’ll stop.

To be clear I’m not trying to say I think extending school hours is wrong. It is an idea – among others – worth exploring.

But – politicians and ‘commentators’ please take note – shouting at schools to teach for longer is not a plan.

Making a plan requires careful consideration of lots of details by people who know enough to know what these details are. The details are boring and fiddly and annoying but the good news is there are people who know how to do this stuff. They’ve been considering how best to help pupils catch up on what they’ve missed – amongst a lot of other things they have had to think about – since March.

They’re –we’re actually – tired. Those with all the high falutin’ big ideas could really do with us being on side. After all we do want the same thing.

So please stop suggesting or implying that there’s a simple solution to things that are complicated without a proper plan.

It just makes it harder for everyone.


One thought on “Should we extend the school day?

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