March 21, 2014 8:59 pm

The debate over longer school days

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illustration for FT Guide to Schools magazine March 2014. By Paul Wearing©Paul Wearing

Longer school days and shorter holidays are the best promise any political party could make ahead of the next general election, says a former top adviser to the prime minister.

Paul Kirby, former head of David Cameron’s Number 10 Policy Unit, suggested in January that schools should open for longer. Parents could work full-time without incurring childcare costs, he said, while results would improve, as the time was used for further study and extracurricular activities.

Michael Gove, the education secretary, says he supports parts of the proposals. But how realistic, or worthwhile, would they be?

In February, Gove was asked on the BBC’s The Andrew Marr Show for his views on Kirby’s suggestion that state schools open 45 hours a week, 45 weeks a year. Most now operate for 39 weeks, from 8.30am or 9am to between 3pm and 3.30pm. “I don’t believe in shortening the school holidays … but I do think that we do need to have a longer school day,” said Gove.

Many parents might see this as attractive, but sceptics question whether there is good evidence of correlation between school hours and academic achievement.

In evidence last June to the School Teachers’ Review Body, which oversees teachers’ contracts, Gove cited pupils in east Asia, who do well in international tests and were “often learning for many more hours than their peers in England, giving them a critical edge”.

The FT analysed country-by-country results in the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa), which tests 15-year-olds in reading, maths and science. There was no significant correlation with OECD data on countries’ school hours.

Scores from the 2012 Pisa maths tests put Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan in the top four. But OECD figures say that in Japan and South Korea (statistics for Singapore and Taiwan were not provided), lower secondary pupils get less teaching time than their counterparts in England. Many Japanese and South Korean teenagers attend after-school private “cram schools”, which do not feature in the data, but the DfE does not advocate this.

Asked by Marr whether there would be extra funding, Gove was non-committal. “One of the things that we need to look at is exactly how it can be delivered appropriately,” he said. His suggestion would not be “mandated” from the Department for Education (DfE).

In evidence to the review body, Gove cited Ark Schools, the London-based academy chain. Academies, semi-independent state schools funded directly by central government, can agree terms with teachers. Ark sets teachers’ hours at an above-average 8am to 5pm. Alex Bigham, a spokesman for Ark, says this makes possible a school day for pupils of 8.30am to 4.30pm, Monday to Thursday, and 8.30am to 3pm on Friday.

However, some newer Ark academies cannot offer extended hours because they are slightly less generously funded. “The DfE holds up groups such as Ark as positive models for the benefits of having a longer school day. But… the government does need to recognise the additional costs that go with it,” says Bigham.

Teachers’ contracts are another issue. David Young Community Academy in Leeds, also cited by Gove, runs extra sessions from 3pm to 4.35pm, four days a week, including arts, sport and revision classes. Ros McMullen, the principal, says this is possible because teachers’ contracted hours are 8.15am to 4.35pm.

Teachers’ contracts in non-academy institutions (about half of England’s state-funded secondaries and 90 per cent of primaries) limit formal hours to 1,265 a year, equating to 8.30am to 3pm, Monday to Friday, for 39 weeks.

Gove wants this cap scrapped, but the review body rejects this, arguing it is sufficiently flexible and safeguards teachers’ workloads, with most working well beyond the formal 1,265 hours.

“The difficulty [for Gove] is that if teachers are under national terms and conditions, schools will have no way of implementing a scheme such as ours, beyond asking teachers to volunteer,” McMullen says.

A DfE spokeswoman says: “We have given all schools the freedom to vary the length of the school day and we want more schools to use this freedom.”

The DfE says there is evidence from many countries of variation in performance between pupils who get different amounts of teaching. Some fast-improving countries in Pisa tests, including Germany, Turkey, Mexico and some US states, have increased their hours, it adds.

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