Comment: Geoff Barton and Graham White debate Michael Gove’s proposal that state schools should have longer days

Graham White Graham White

Wednesday, February 19, 2014
7:30 AM

In a speech at the London Academy of Excellence last month, Michael Gove suggested that state schools should stay open for nine or ten hours a day.

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Geoff BartonGeoff Barton

Is this a clever method of raising educational attainment, a way to make it easier for parents to work more, or a cynical attempt to get teachers to do more for less? Here Geoff Barton, headteacher at King Edward VI School in Bury St Edmunds, and Graham White, Secretary of Suffolk NUT, debate the proposal. Have your say by posting a comment below.

Geoff Barton, in favour of longer school days:

You sometimes wonder whether, like some Westminster-based matador, Michael Gove like to flap a red flag at the teaching profession and prod us as if we were some slobbering old bull. Then he stands back to see what we do.

One jab, it seems, and we will always react.

So it is with his suggestion that we should be working longer days in school.

The usual knee-jerk response has painted the Secretary of State as if he were King Herod exhorting the massacre of more babies.

In fact, he’s said something rather sensible – which is not a sentence I often write about Michael Gove’s views.

The best schools in this country – more, perhaps, than anywhere else in the world - attend to the development of ‘the whole person’. They aren’t mere exam factories. They strengthen moral purpose, build resilience and teach independence. They show young people the power of networking, of relating positively to other people. They teach character.

And for too long this sense of holistic education has been seen as the domain of independent schools – those schools in Britain which educate just 7% of our young people but which appear to get more than their fair share of kudos and status and attention.

Many such schools give heavy emphasis to extra-curricular activities, such as sport, music and drama.

These activities are often seen as essentially character-forming. And independent schools have been able to do all of this because children are with them for longer – either as day pupils or boarders, often with Saturdays too – and because their income per child is generally higher.

Why should such activities be the right of children whose parents are paying for education?

At King Edward’s we believe that extra-curricular activities in our proudly comprehensive school are as important as what happens in the classroom. It’s why our lunchtimes and late afternoons are teeming with students playing in orchestras, competing in sport, debating, or undertaking supervised study.

Some of the people supervising these activities are teachers; many are not.

If all schools were funded to provide character-forming activities as part of a longer school day, then it’s hard to see why we wouldn’t want that for every child in every school.

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Graham White, against longer school days:

Teachers typically work in excess of sixty hours a week in order to deliver high quality education.

Some of this is spent in the classroom, but the majority is spent planning, preparing, assessing, as well as all the paperwork now required.

Teachers working even more excessive hours will have a negative effect on their home lives, their own children and their own health. It will do nothing to recruit and retain teaching staff. Some teachers may even become less effective if they have to work even longer hours.

Proposals to increase the working day for pupils and to shorten the holiday period will have a negative effect on pupils.

Teachers support improved childcare provision and the better use of school buildings after school and holidays through clubs and activities but it is important not to confuse education with childcare.

Many parents find the six week summer break difficult in terms of childcare along with the start and finish times of school. Schools have, through the extended schools approach, set up ‘breakfast clubs’ and after school activities. These are positives, giving children a broader education including some ‘play’ and may help to reduce the potential for anti-social behaviour. Some independent schools have a longer day but they also have more extra-curricular activities.

According to the OECD the average hours of instruction to pupils in OECD countries was 6,862 hours (age 7-14). Pupils in the UK received 7,258 hours, Finland 5,637 hours, Korea 5,910 hours and Japan 6,501 hours.

There are key issues around the concentration span of pupils and there is a risk that by extending the school day concentration will diminish.

It is worth noting that Finland – one of the highest rated education systems – has a ten week summer break as do Hong Kong and Sweden. In fact eleven nations rated better for education than the UK by PISA have summer breaks of eight weeks or more.

If we went for shorter holidays, especially in the summer, what would be the impact on holiday prices for parents? Studies have shown that pupils who miss school to go on holiday can lose a grade at GCSE.

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