Longer school times are not child-friendly

Picture of a yellowish Georgian building with sloped lawns and a driveway in the foregroundMichael Gove proposes longer school day and shorter holidays | Politics | guardian.co.uk

Michael Gove, the current education secretary, has announced extended school days and longer terms, allowing schools to stay open until 4:30pm and reduce the length of the summer holidays to four weeks. He has given two reasons: one being that British children are supposedly being left behind by those in Asia who already have longer days and shorter holidays, and the other being that the current pattern is out of date, not taking into account the fact that there will be nobody to pick many children up at 3pm as there were in the past. Christine Blower, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, has pointed out that private schools have a holiday that is two weeks longer in the summer than state schools and do not apparently feel any need to change. David Priestland, in today’s Guardian, notes that Gove has already dismissed the reactions of experts, as free-market ideologues (both Tory and Labour) have done for the past 35 years, and will carry on and do what he thinks is right.

Nobody seems to have mentioned the effect this change (which has been talked about for years in one form or another) will have on children. I have heard mention of the ability of children (especially younger children) to concentrate as long as they to currently, let alone longer, but that is not the only way this harms children. Put simply, school is for some children an ordeal, sometimes because they have special needs of one sort or another, and they find the stress of having to mix with numerous other children they find are hostile to them, or deal with shouty or bossy teachers and uniforms and rules, and some because they are being bullied either by other pupils or teachers. For these children, a home-time as early as possible is vital, and forcing them to stay longer will cause serious problems and possibly end up making it impossible for them to stay there.

There are other practical problems: ending a primary school day at 4:30pm will mean children are going home in the dark in winter, and even if “Berlin time” is adopted (in which case sunset will be around 5pm in mid-winter), children finishing school at 4:30pm will only have 30 minutes to get home before sundown, so it takes no account of those who have long journeys to make and the added dangers they are likely to face. On top of this, they will also have only 30 minutes to beat the evening rush hour, which will make their journeys home even longer and more difficult, along with every other commuter’s journey. It has added convenience for anyone using the roads before that time, of course, ending the “long rush” that runs from 3pm to 7pm in some areas with schoolchildren and workers commuting at different times, but the advantage to delivery drivers (and I am one) is not worth the extra risk to children. If the extra time is going to be spent teaching, does this mean homework will be ended? If not, even more of children’s lives are going to be dominated by school and schoolwork and they will have no time for play, or out-of-school activities, or sitting and talking with their family, before they have to go to bed. Late finishing times are good only for boarding schools (where there is no commute) and for places like sixth-form colleges where not all the day is spent in actual lessons.

It’s an all-round stupid idea, which will be entirely impracticable for everyone except some working parents, and other alternatives should be found for where children are too young to go home alone. Schools are not meant to be creches serving parents who need a babysitter while they work; they are meant to be places of stimulation and education.

The David Priestland article, besides giving a useful history of governments heeding the advice of experts only when they tell them what they want to hear, also notes that “intellectuals and ‘boffins’” do not enjoy the status in the UK that they do on the Continent:

So highly esteemed are academic qualifications in Germany that two ministers have recently resigned over accusations that they plagiarised their doctoral thesis. This would never happen in Britain, where those rare politicians who do possess doctorates are at pains to disguise the fact – witness Dr Gordon Brown.

He might have pointed out that this mentality starts at school, where there is a culture in which boys are not expected to be seen doing their work or studying as it’s seen as effeminate or not in conformity with the faux-rebellious norm among their peer group. There is a stereotype of a “geek” who wears glasses, smells, talks funny and isn’t sporty or sociable, and if you resemble this then you are likely to get bullied, even in an ostensibly academically strong school, or if you are black, accused of “acting white”. For girls, being seen as too ambitious or choosing “male” subjects such as physics is regarded as unfeminine. particularly in mixed state schools. We also sometimes see columns attacking “jumped-up” experts in the tabloids, characterising academics and other experts who disagree with the paper’s view as “nutty professors” or people who are “too clever”, another favourite of school bullies. That we are a country which ridicules rather than respects its intellectuals is perhaps a reason why we our universities are falling in global rankings compared to American and East Asian universities. It is ironic that the same political right which attacks calls for fair taxes (meaning higher taxes for the rich) with the phrase “the politics of envy” harnesses popular envy and resentment towards people who know more than us, have spent their lives pursuing knowledge (often for the public good) and speak with authority. This situation, and our intellectual decline, are not going to change any time soon while our government makes education more of a grind and an ordeal than it already is.

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  • I jokingly like to say that Britain hates intellectuals because, were they admired, it would interfere with middle class people having stupid opinions. But I think this attitude has its roots, sadly, among the working classes as much as elsewhere. For example, in the immediate aftermath of WWII, many officers organised cultural activities for troops stationed around Europe. My father, who was a private (but had been to grammar school) told me of how most ordinary troops rejected these activities on the grounds that officers were, “trying to fill our ‘eads wiv all that toff nonsense”. Hence, he was one of just two men from his unit that had a day out in Pompeii while he was stationed in Italy. Despite education no longer being the preserve of the middle and upper classes, nothing has changed - most people now view the education system as an exam factory, and therefore a waste of time if you’re not ‘brainy’. The German concept of Bildung - education as a path to character improvement - remains utterly alien to most British minds.

  • M Risbrook

    Michael Gove’s proposals will open up Pandora’s Box.

    1. If teachers are to devote more time to school then where is the money going to come from to pay their salaries?

    2. What exactly will the children be expected to do in these extra hours? Will it be more of the NC? Will it be subjects not currently in the NC? Will it be sports and recreational activities that may or may not be useful? Will it be homework in ‘supervised in silence’ prep sessions like the boarding schools of old?

    3. Will children really benefit from structured classroom based learning or is the future of education heading towards self study and casual learning? Is more academics a red herring when in reality children would benefit more from learning life skills? Does academic competitiveness with Asia conflict with requirements for the UK job market?

  • Having sat through more than my fair share of boarding school prep sessions, I can say they are often anything but silent - depending on who is supervising and how, they could be as disrupted as normal lessons. The work done could be much more profitably done at home or in a public or school library.

  • M Risbrook

    I was referring to the sort of prep sessions that Roald Dahl attended where he got caned for asking a classmate if he had a spare pen nib.