Is extending school hours really such a vote winner?

//Is extending school hours really such a vote winner?

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?

2014-01-30T18:10:14+00:00January 30th, 2014|Featured|


  1. […] via Is extending school hours really such a vote winner? | David Didau: The Learning Spy. […]

    • JO STOCKWELL. February 3, 2014 at 12:48 pm - Reply


      • barry waterfield February 3, 2014 at 1:52 pm - Reply

        You’re so right. Apparently the proposal is unlikely to be adopted. I think they somehow imagined that it would be a vote catcher and no doubt you understand their urgency in this respect, however it’s my belief the public reaction has shown that it could go the other way.

        • Danielle February 3, 2014 at 7:01 pm - Reply

          And what about the children’s part time jobs in middle and high school they need spending money of their own and the shops need the staff

  2. barry waterfield January 30, 2014 at 8:12 pm - Reply

    I don’t see it working. The Tories don’t really care how long somebody else works so long as it doesn’t affect them. This would be too long a day for young children and it would release them into the evening rush hour, in the dark, when other risks are commensurately increased. I don’t think it will appeal to working mums either, the whole point of having children is that you enjoy them, not that the teacher see more of them than you do. And lastly, where are all these extra jobs coming from, we haven’t enough jobs for our present work force let alone a fifty percent increase. This is another idea from the blue rinse think tank with the added recommendation that it comes from the mind of an accountant, that weird and wonderful race that lost England most of the her rail network.

  3. […] We have had a few interesting commentaries from education bloggers on longer school days (here and here), but the twitter debate fell quickly into criticisms about impacts on family life, which need to […]

  4. sixfoot2 January 31, 2014 at 7:40 pm - Reply

    Firstly, whatever your thoughts on achieving a work/life balance (which is surely a matter of individual choice), a lot of research finds that if the parent(s) spend(s) more time WITH their children it has a positive impact upon their offsprings’ academic achievement, as well as social and emotional wellbeing.

    If a child’s caregiver(s) is/are working full time, and the child herself is in school 8+ hours a day, when exactly will families find this important time to read, play and socialise together?

    Secondly, Kirby’s claim that kids need 8 hours’ sleep is ridiculous. My primary age kids sleep for 10-11 hours every night. Without it they would be fractious and unable to function at school.

    Thirdly, from what I’ve read on South Korea and other countries with strong economies and very competitive education systems, the children may achieve higher test results, but do not necessarily become happier, healthier adults.

    Finally, as a parent, I want to spend time with my children, and have some input into their cultural, social and moral knowledge and values. What helps me combine work and parenting is an employer who has offered me flexible hours, and I would choose this every time over leaving them from 8am-6pm in an institutional setting. I realise not everyone has this choice, but I think many working parents would prefer it to never seeing their children in daylight hours.

    Some politicans may think that this proposal is a vote winner, but I think it could blow up in their faces. Better provide reliable and high quality – but optional – after school clubs (subsidised for those who use them as worktime childcare), and encourage a working culture where flexible working is not just a buzzword that is trotted out during PR exercises.

    • barry waterfield February 1, 2014 at 6:59 am - Reply

      I agree with your comments and I also think this will blow up in the faces, as so many recent decisions already have.The choice should be optional, if you want to stay after 3.30 then the facilities will be provided if not off you go.

  5. Meg January 31, 2014 at 10:04 pm - Reply

    I think it’s absolutely rediculas, children spend long enough at school already and there brains do need a rest. They need to see there parents nit come home from school have there tea then off they go to bed. It’s far too long. Children grow up too quick as it is so parents want to spend as much time possible with them. A 4 year old chil starting school for all those hours is too long it’s long enough 9-3 . You can’t expect a child’s life to be school there still children you have to let them have freedom too and this will stop that. More kids would skip school, want to stay at home too see there parents. And not be pressured in school all the time. If parents work late that is why they gave after school clubs etc. more people would be out of work if they didn’t need child minders. Children do different clubs on a into if they want to help education and they have holidays to give them a break and also to let them be children . Their kids let them be kids. Adults work and as these kids get older then they will do them same. Too much pressure for children

  6. Rachel Coulson February 4, 2014 at 3:16 am - Reply

    Why don’t the Tories just take our babies off us at birth and just shove them in boarding schools ? They live on a different planet and obviously do not know what a family life means. I did not have kids to shove them in an institution for 9 hours a day. I want to spend time and nurture my own Children. Also my job is teaching dance out of school hours so this stupid idea would leave me without a unemployed . I cannot imagine doing the school run at 6pm with shattered kids feeding them tea and then sending them straight to bed this is not what I would call a fulfilling life.

  7. Nicola February 4, 2014 at 12:18 pm - Reply

    I can’t believe this man even opened his mouth and let this load of rubbish fall out, I had children because I wanted to be with them and raise them not to let others do it for me, if you don’t want to spend time with your children DON’T HAVE THEM. Oh and I don’t know if anyone has pointed out to Kirby, this is the UK, NOT Korea. I for one will not be voting to keep the Tories in if this is the sort of thing they think we want. This is a really bad joke, get a grip Tories.

  8. Rachel Patton February 24, 2014 at 11:06 am - Reply

    i don’t agree with Kirby, this is absolutely no solution to the problem for I believe that being a teacher and a parent , children are already under pressure and so any such step will make them more vulnerable to the world competition and that such a system will produce only robots not intelligent students!

    Rachel Patton

    • barry waterfield February 24, 2014 at 2:30 pm - Reply

      I’m inclined to agree. Extending school opening hours would also make it extremely difficult for children to socialize outside the school gates, I’m thinking of things like the Brownies, Cubs, Scouts and Guides, football league, choir etc. Life does not begin and end with school. It is very important to remember that for many children the school day is long enough for their requirements. I am a firm believer in selection, i.e. identifying a childs direction and strong points as quickly as possible and cutting out those areas of the curriculum that will not support their future career. Future plumbers, builders, mechanics etc do not need an extensive knowledge of history, geography or English Language. Far from extending the hours in school many youngsters could benefit from day release and earlier work experience, although I do realize this would not help a government keen to fudge employment figures.

  9. meriam March 24, 2014 at 6:42 pm - Reply

    We want our children not away from us more than usual

  10. Georgia May 12, 2015 at 6:17 pm - Reply

    In my opinion of all this changing of school hours I don’t think it’s a good idea. I believe that by making the hours longer students will get more fed up and tired and not wanting to go to school on other day. This could make students so fed up it could acctually make their attendance worse because of all the hours of work at school. The attendance of students cost good grades every week of 2 months a student goes down a grade. So by changing the school hours this could affect the attendance of many students and costing them good grades which they could be achieving. Therefore this is why I think it’s a bad idea for conservatives or whoever else wants to change the school hours thank you for reading.

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