Don't lengthen the school day – all work and no play harms students

Posted on: 11 Jun 2014

By: Tim Hands, Master of Magdalen College School

With debate still raging over whether the school day should be longer, Tim Hands argues that less teaching leads to better exam results…

Recently, I was speaking at a national conference about careers advice. The questioning turned, as it so frequently does these days, to the length of the school day and the length of the school year. I have pretty firm views on these, not popular in all quarters, but with a lot of family experience behind them.

My father left teaching in the independent sector because he had an idealistic and visionary belief in the comprehensive ideal. He ended up running the fourth-largest school in the country. My own background is a bit different: although I was educated in the state sector, I've only taught in the independent sector. But I like to think that we have the same ideals, the same principles, the same fundamental belief in the welfare and interests of the child, which we exercise irrespective of the sector we work in.

My father believed that schools exist to serve their communities, and I agree. But we both also believe that schools start on that mission by serving children. Children need leisure. Friedrich Froebel, the influential Romantic German philosopher of childhood and a great influence on my father, believed in the value of play as an essential part of human development. That meant my parents kept me away from school for as long as possible – indeed until the inspectors came knocking on the door.

We are in a pretty reactionary place in this country at the moment with regard to our views of the child. Basically, 1960s egalitarianism didn't win the day – and not without reason. In came Margaret Thatcher, and a succession of education secretaries who saw children only in terms of academic measurement. They consider that the more you teach young people, the more and better they will learn. The whole thing has become Gradgrindian, and risks being completely counter-productive. We need a balance in our views of things.

There's a big and developing movement of mind – evident at the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference and in many other places – that says it's time for change, time for that proper balance. You can't achieve that desired balanced end if you go along with the notion of a longer day.

Opposing the notion involves an argument in two parts: the first part is about the best interest of the child; the second part is about the purpose of a school.

The more civilised society has become, the more it has enshrined holidays and leisure time in our legislation and patterns of life. Bank holidays amplified the provision of the old Quarter Day holidays, like Lady Day and Michaelmas; philanthropists like Lord Shaftesbury similarly campaigned not just for fewer working days in the year, but for fewer working hours in the day. It's not just a broad question of justice and philanthropy: it's also the practical issue of being in the right frame of mind to perform.

I look at it this way. Most state schools are required to have a 195-day year. Most independent schools work 180 days. When I was a head of an independent school in Portsmouth, I set about further decreasing the school year bit by bit. My first target was the Christmas holidays, which I extended from two weeks to three, noticing how tired many of the staff were when they came back, exhausted after looking after their in-laws over a supposed "holiday" period. One senior staff member complained that our contact hours were fewer than the maintained sector, but fortunately our governors didn't listen. They could see that the less teaching there was, the better the public exam results. Teachers and pupils were in a better frame of mind for the rigours and challenges of everyday school life.

So I say keep young brains fresh and give them other things to do. And stop brains like mine from getting less and less active, by giving them time to recover.

This brings us as to the second bit of the argument – what is the purpose of a school? A school is there to serve its community. A school is an accountant's nightmare because it has overheads all the year round, but is quite likely only to be in use for about half the days in the year.

Schools need to be community centres, and not just because there's a financial reason for that. They need, much more importantly, to act as second homes for children, for their parents, and for every member of the local community. There is a strong argument for a longer school day because it will help working parents. This is why I say yes to longer opening hours, but not longer teaching hours – and there's a very big difference. Schools can host clubs, advice centres – especially on careers – and all sorts of extra curricular options. The more activity a child can have on offer the better. Therefore the more opportunities the buildings of a school can provide, the better. But that's not the same as more lessons.

Children are only young once. We have a duty to give them a proper childhood. A longer school day is not the way to do that.

This article first appeared in The Guardian see here.

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