April 18, 2013 4:56 pm

Michael Gove calls for longer UK school day

The UK is losing ground against its international competitors because its children spend too little time at school, according to the education secretary.

Michael Gove said on Thursday that Britain had an education system that was “essentially set in the 19th century” when children had short school days and long summer holidays to enable them to work the fields.

He wants British schools to change the structure of the school year and to have longer school hours, copying the practice of countries such as Hong Kong and Singapore.

“We are actually running in this global race in a way that ensures we start with a significant handicap,” Mr Gove told a conference organised by the Spectator magazine.

Mr Gove also cast the idea as aligning schools more closely to parental working hours.

Academy schools already have the leeway to change their terms times and school days but relatively few have done so, while local authorities have also resisted Mr Gove’s plea for a rethink.

Among the problems facing schools is that any such move would push up the wage bill for teaching staff and other costs: Mr Gove is not offering to increase funding to pay for his plan.

Nevertheless some academies have made reforms; Milton Keynes academy has six terms lasting six weeks, while the West London academy has extended the school day with an additional four hours teaching time per week.

Mr Gove’s allies say the “best academies” have found the money to pay teachers to work the longer hours.

The education secretary’s ability to coax teachers into working longer hours may be limited, given the state of open warfare between the secretary of state and the teaching unions.

Mr Gove said he feared schools could soon close because of strike action by the NUT and NASUWT unions, which he claimed were competing for members, with each trying to be more radical than the other.

He repeated his challenge to the unions to set up their own “free school” – operating outside his national curriculum – to prove that they had a better approach to raising educational standards.

Mr Gove did little to calm the atmosphere on Thursday, repeating his claim that the unions had tolerated “a culture of low expectations” where more than a third of schools did not meet basic standards of literacy or numeracy.

“One of the tragedies of our time is that the teaching unions have chosen to put the interests of adults ahead of the needs of children,” he said. “My challenge – not to teachers but to teaching unions – is to do a better job.”

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