This morning saw the world light up with hysterical headlines proclaiming the end of days. School holidays would be slashed from 13 to 7 weeks and kids forced to spend 9 hours a day in school.

  • The Sun: Tories plan to keep kids in school nine hours a day, 45 weeks a year
  • The Mirror: Conservatives mull forcing children to attend school between 9am and 6pm EVERY DAY for 45 weeks a year
  • Daily Mail: Schools could open from 9am to 6pm for 45 weeks a year in move aimed to slash cost of childcare and stop the ‘summer slideback’
  • The Guardian: Lengthen school days and cut holidays, says former Tory adviser

Well, as ever, the truth is slightly less dramatic. In fact this particular storm has been brewed in the tiny tea-cup of ex-special adviser, Paul Kirby’s blog.

Kirby thinks he’s found the right stuff for a sure-fire Tory election victory: extending school hours by a whopping two-thirds to give students the equivalent of an extra 7 years in full-time education. And, who knows? Maybe he’s right? But whether or not his ideas ring a bell in the Tory heartlands isn’t really the issue. Should education policy depend on getting on the most expedient means of returning Cameron & Co to office?

No it shouldn’t. And Kirby, to his credit is aware of this. He sets out all the reasons why this policy gem would not only appeal to voters but is also the right decision on economic and educational grounds.

Here are his arguments boiled down to bullet points:

  • Extending the school day would allow more women to reenter the workplace and cut down on the need for childcare
  • There would be more time to extend the curriculum and give children a greater breadth of educational experiences
  • Long school holidays have a disproportionately adverse effect on the poorest children
  • The countries with the most academically successful school systems (South Korea et al) have much longer school days then we do
  • ‘The evidence’ shows that extending school hours in the US has resulted in improved outcomes for the most disadvantaged students
  • Teachers with experience of working in schools with extended days actually like it because teaching is less pressured and they have more non-contact time. And, by staggering leave over the year, teachers’ holidays have stayed the same
  • There will be more space in the school day for “play, creativity, relaxation, exploration and exercise”
  • The costs could be paid for in part by changing the role of Teaching Assistants (who, Kirby asserts, actually cause more harm than good).  Any short fall in man hours could be covered by Boy Scouts and Girl Guides
  • Any extra funding required would be covered by all those mums going back to work

Kirby concludes with an interesting thought experiment asking, “If this new idea had been well established for the last 20 years and we proposed scrapping it, what would be the public reaction today? Relief, indifference, opposition?”

Let’s assume that today’s parents had grown up expecting that schools were open 45 weeks a year and 45 hours per week. This fitted into their full time jobs. They got the same holidays as their kids and a working day that fitted inside school hours. Their kids had a broad and rich education, with lots of enrichment. And then, in order to please teachers and save a little money, the Government of the day proposed closing schools for 7 weeks a year and shortening the school day by 2.5 hours. Suddenly, a couple of million staff (mostly women, probably) would have to give up work, or go part-time. School-life would be pared down to the bone – a crammed day, with stressful lessons, kids falling behind, kids falling out, no time of the sports or arts, no place for the community in the curriculum. There would be uproar. An Election promise to go back to what we actually have today would be the biggest vote loser in history. So why wouldn’t an Election promise for my 45 / 45 model be the biggest vote winner since 1945? It must at least be good for a 45% share of the vote. 45 – remember the number!  

Compelling stuff. Or is it? Let’s have a look at some of his reasoning in more detail:

Kirby claims that “Four out of ten stay-at-home mums want to work and a fifth of mums who work want to do more hours”, with the assumption being that the reason they’re wishes aren’t being fulfilled is because of pesky schools and their ridiculously short days. If this is true and if we really want more women in the work place this could be achieved by allowing them to work more flexible hours. I realise my understanding of economics is far from complete and that I could be on shaky ground but this argument seems more like an excuse that a reason. But what if it isn’t true? Do legions parents really want to pack off their kids so they can work ever longer hours just to satisfy Mammon’s insatiable hunger? Maybe, just maybe, some of society’s ills could be cured by allowing more parents to spend more time with their kids?

The point about an extended curriculum offering a greater range of possibilities is an interesting one. I agree that cramming the day with maths and English to the exclusion of art and music can feel somewhat soul crushing. But let’s be realistic; if you’re worrying about floor targets and someone waves a wand to give you an extra 3 hours a day are you really going to spend that time doing flower arranging or shiatsu? No. You’re going to find ways of cramming even more maths and English into reluctant children’s maws. Maybe this could be legislated against, but I can’t really see that being such a vote winner: let’s increase income tax to pay for your kids to go on more school trips. Anyone?

It’s true that Gladwell does point out that long school holidays are a scourge on disadvantaged kids’ life chances, although he’s referring to the much longer 3 month lay off that happens in some US states rather than the 6 weeks summer break enjoyed by British children. But what if he has point and longer holidays contribute to the ever-expanding educational gap between the poorest and the richest kids? Happily, Kirby has already posed an alternative solution to this problem. If we’re already planning to stagger teachers’ leave then we can restructure school holidays without having to make any other changes.

The countries that top the Pisa charts are, as Kirby points out, operating much longer school days. It’s statistically invalid to compare our system with theirs because we’re not comparing like with like. Culturally, we seem to value different things and are (or have been) less keen on consigning our children to longer school days and the relentless pressure of exam success at any cost. But maybe this has changed? Maybe we are now willing to plough this cheerless furrow? Well, before making a decision on this, I would urge you to read Amanda Ripley’s The Smartest Kids in the World. Here’s an extract from Jo Facer’s blog describing the South Korean school system:

South Korea is a system highly praised by many, and rightly so – for its results. In this book, however, a different story is told. School begins early (8am) and continues late – study at school can go on until 7 or 8 in the evening. Students have special pillows they attach to their arms so they can nap during classes. A 12 hour day may seem familiar to most teachers, but I’d hazard none of us would want to deal with students subjected to this. But wait – there’s more! The hagwons, which are intense tutorials, take students all the way up until 10pm (legally) and beyond that time (illegally) – every day, after school.

Maybe this is what the majority of Tory voters want for our children, but I’m just not convinced that’s true.

But wait. If it works in America, then it’ll work here. Kirby cites these statistics:

After just 1 year, there was a 44% boost in maths proficiency, 39% in English and 19% in Science. And the achievement gap narrowed too – by 35% in English. The 57 KIPP schools in the US achieve remarkable results in the US’ most deprived areas. With 80% of kids from low-income families and 90% African-American or Latino, the KIPP schools’ results are 2 to 3 times better than similar schools elsewhere.

This is compelling stuff and something that certainly merits further study. But, having come unstuck with the quality of educational research in the past and being dubious about such measurements as effect sizes, I’d like to have a bloody good look before leaping to any conclusions.

Regardless of the potential educational advantages of spending longer in school, is it desirable? Kirby’s already done his maths:

The 45/45 school year equals 2025 hours. 45 hours is 9 to 6, or 830 to 530. Assuming 8 hours sleep each day, a kid has 5,840 waking hours each year. That means kids would still only be at school for about a third of their waking hours.

But is this what we want? Kirby argues that “in numerical terms” this isn’t a problem, whatever that means. But how much is too much? Children aren’t adults and don’t have the same endurance. They get tired. The South Korean solution of supplying special pillows for kids to kip through the day seems ludicrous. Maybe we should get the opinion of child psychologists and neuroscientists before rushing to make a judgement on this. Yes, I know we used to stuff the buggers up chimneys and use them to floss Fagin’s teeth, but I thought we’d agreed that kind of thing was a bad idea?

But what about the fury of teachers? Well, it’s very interesting that teachers with any experience of this kind of system are so keen on extending school hours. Is it really true that a longer day means you’re less pressured? I’d be keen to unpick the assertion that teachers are unanimously joyous about these changes. How do we know? More to the point though, I’d be deeply sceptical about whether schools really would use the opportunity afforded by longer days to give teachers more non-contact time. Potentially this could be wonderful, but if it means that teachers end up being expected to teach for an extra 3 hours a day, I think we’d push many beyond breaking point. Obviously the reality is that teachers don’t finish working at 3 as things stand. Most teachers spend additional hours every day planning and marking and it would be lovely to think we would be paid for doing this in school time. Like I say, I’m sceptical.

And that brings us to the cash. Would it really be as simple as changing TA’s job descriptions and drafting in Bear Gryll’s willing hordes? Kirby supposes that it would be straightforward to compel the 200,000 existing TAs to supervise homework and run enrichment. And there certainly is some damning evidence that teaching assistants don’t seem to have much in the way of positive impact on attainment. Maybe this suggestion is both preferable and possible, but won’t the guides and scouts be too busy at school to volunteer to help at, er, school? Will local organisation really leap to fill the gaps in the new, bulging school day? What if they don’t? The reality is that, in the words of the late, great George Harrison, it’s gonna take money: a whole lot of spending money. In fact it’s going to take plenty of money, to do it right.

George is unable to offer any insight on just how much money it’d take, but I’m convinced it would be a lot. Is this really the vote winner Kirby assures us it is?