There’s been a period of relative quiet from the Secretary of State for Education since he was forced to back down on plans for a single examination board for each GCSE subject, and since he “decided” to maintain GCSEs, against his previously expressed wishes. Perhaps he kept his peace whilst people were commenting on the National Curriculum proposals. There was so much opposition to his plans, with passionate letters to national newspapers and heart-felt responses as part of the consultation, that maybe he felt it wise to remain silent for this period.
However golden silence is, it seems the minister can’t keep quiet for long, and a matter of days after the consultation for the National Curriculum was closed Mr Gove’s mouth was open once more.
This time, he was making his proclamations about the amount of time that young people should spend in school, with a suggestion of increased hours per day and a decrease in school holidays. Let’s face facts, with the fifty plus additional powers that have been granted to the Secretary of State since this coalition came to power, he can proclaim one minute and enact the next, with little opportunity for those who oppose his plans to have their say before they become law. Only the machinations of the legal team within his own department prevent him from acting in a completely autocratic and dictatorial manner.
At first glance, however, there’s something positive in this notion of an extended day and a reduction in the length of the long summer holiday. Many parents would be relieved by an extended day, where their children were cared for in a place already familiar to them and that was potentially more economically viable than the current cost of child-minding. Likewise with the summer holidays. Maintaining a full-time job whilst juggling child-care is no mean feat, and the prospect of having schools open for longer periods of time in the summer is certainly something that might appeal to many.
However, we need to look at the reasons for this, and the implications that go beyond the school playground in doing so.
In the long-gone days of the ILEA, the school where I worked provided an extended day for our pupils. Subsequent to the demise of ILEA, the school that was managed by my business partner also offered an extended day. In both cases, children were offered a range of activities provided by carefully chosen staff who embraced the opportunity to support, guide and facilitate play and learning in a range of “subjects”. This enabled parents to work, children to enjoy one another’s company outside the formal hours of schooling, and created an exceptional sense of community and belonging that so many of our children need and want.
The activities in both of these after-school provisions included sports, music, information technology, photography, creative pursuits and so forth. Many schools now offer additional activities that some parents choose to pay for, including drama clubs, cricket clubs, even philosophy classes. Back in the days of New Labour, after-school care was a key concern for Blair, and an entire funding stream was developed to coordinate activities under the Extended Schools programme. However, the idea of wrap-around provision was never fully implemented – another indication of the rhetoric, values and theory behind the Every Child Matters agenda never being realised.
The point is that Mr Gove’s suggestion that the school day should be extended isn’t really new. Those of us who have always been concerned with developing the whole child and caring for their every need knew that additional services in the school building were a good thing. What is different, of course, are the reasons that Gove gives for wanting this to happen.
Let’s look at some of the words and phrases that he uses in his reasoning.
He says that a longer school day would “improve performance” and would “make life easier for working parents”. He says that “hard work is at the heart of everything” and that extending the school day would “get more out of young people”. He also said,
“If you look at the length of the school day in England, the length of the summer holiday – and we compare it to the extra tuition and support that children are receiving elsewhere – then we are fighting or actually running in this global race in a way that ensures that we start with a significant handicap.”
We could be wrong, but we think that our reasons for an extended school day are somewhat at odds with the Secretary of State. He appears to be suggesting that his version of an extended school day is actually an extended formalised schooling day, which is a different thing altogether.
Now, there’s every possibility that Michael Gove would contradict this and say that he too wants time for children and young people to explore their creativity, their sporting prowess and their musical ambitions, and by extending the school day, this could be achieved. Our counterargument to that is that all of these things should be happening within quality schooling, not as an optional add-on. What concerns us greatly is that this declaration merely paves the way for more didactic and Gradgrind learning within the existing school hours, leaving exhausted and deflated learners to “express” themselves at the end of the day – obviously on the condition that they have achieved expected and median levels of attainment, and that if they haven’t, they will be given additional core-subject lessons until they’ve done so.
He continues to cite Singapore as an example of how learning is extended through the day. What he fails to mention is the fact that Singapore, as we have said on numerous occasions, has a policy of “Teach less, Learn More” and that their after-school hours are devoted to individual learning, the child’s choice and the development of the real and necessary life-skills that will enable children to enjoy learning, appreciate childhood now, whilst also preparing them for continued learning and work in adult life. Every child in Singapore, for example, has to participate in a co-curricular activity – and please note the phraseology here – “CO – curricular”. There’s joined-up thinking not piecemeal whim-like interventions.
What he also fails to mention is the practice in places like Finland which has the highest academic attainment and the lowest number of hours a child spends in school. What he fails to say is that Finnish children are encouraged to think for themselves and enjoy themselves through learning at the end of the school day – by CHOICE!
And this is where we have significant issue with Gove. Why would a child want to continue in school after the allocated time if they think they are getting more of the same, and that more is a knowledge-based curriculum that is essentially chosen for them? Is Gove now saying that his beloved curriculum, which incidentally even he deems to be unfit for purpose for the more autonomous academies and free schools, is unworkable in its current form if there are only a certain amount of hours in a school day? Of course, he would argue that it has been streamlined but the extent of directives within the core subjects is as stringent as ever.
The real point of hypocrisy comes in his statement that “we can’t afford to have an education system that was essentially set in the 19th century” and yet his curriculum is precisely that – set in bygone times with little relevance to children in the 21st century.
The other issue about the extended day for schools is the effect on families. Don’t children need time with their parents, carers, siblings? With the horrific amount of out-of-hours homework that is thrust upon children and young people these days, family life can be dictated by school work on weekends and evening, allowing very little quality time together, unless there’s a conscious decision to value other pursuits above the prescribed, formulaic learning of homework.
Please read the three articles attached that provide varying comments from parents on the potential effects of Gove’s suggestions.
The provision of after-schools activities, whereby children can choose what learning and play they participate in, is good practice. Schools should be centres of extended learning for the entire local community. Additional hours to support working parents with childcare is also extremely valuable which is why we always operated and supported such systems in our own schools. However, directing and dictating the form of these extended days, is not good.
It’s not clear within the reports on his speech to the Spectator Education Conference whether Mr Gove expects teachers to extend their working days as well. The cynic might suggest that the comments made by him are a direct response to the union’s suggestion that teachers should have a minimum of 20 hours per week teaching time, freeing and enabling them to prepare, mark and manage work for the remainder of the long hours that most put in.
As for holidays . . . time and space on this post will not afford a major comment, but for Gove to say that those teachers who see their work as a vocation would not be bothered by a reduction in holiday time is extremely divisive and clearly shows Gove’s lack of understanding and experience of the life of a teacher. The majority of good teachers spend considerably less than half of their allocated “holidays” relaxing. Most are continually thinking about work, planning, researching and preparing their classrooms for the following term.
There is an argument to be had for reducing the summer holidays and introducing a six or seven term year but one of the major stumbling blocks in reform is the constraints of the current examination system and its ludicrous timing within the school year. There’s also the point that schools could be opened for activities within the school holiday that are engaging, challenging, creative and chosen by children rather than having their learning imposed by others.
Let’s just say there’s potential here, but Gove needs to be very clear about what it would entail, who would be employed to look after these children, the impact on teachers’ work and conditions, the value of family life, but most importantly, what are the wider benefits for our children?
As Gove said himself in his speech to the same Spectator conference last year,
“Whatever tests we set ourselves – and whatever achievements we boast of – the question that goes to the heart of the health of our society should be the same – how are the children?”