Longer better? Harder? Faster? Should the school day stretch even further?

Tom Bennett

Every week Tom Bennett will be shouting at the laptop about some damn fool idea in education, or else he’ll be writing about classrooms, students, or why teaching is the most important job in the world. This week it’s time to ask yourself whether you fix things, or do you just smooth things over?

Some suggestions were made this week from the Grand Wizard of Sanctuary House that schools should consider longer opening hours in order to improve academic achievement. Michael Gove (for it is he) said at a Spectator conference that:

“It is already the case that some of the best schools in the country recognise the need to change the structure of the school term.

“It’s also the case that some of the best schools in the country recognise that we need to have a longer school day as well.”

The reaction was so predictable you could have set Big Ben by it. Christine Blower of the National Union of Teachers and Mary Bousted of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers did their duty and bit their thumbs at it; Twitter had an aneurysm; the Channel 4 News page even constructed a handy comparison page to show that, contrary to Mr Gove’s claims, the UK had, comparatively speaking, one of the longer school days and terms of the countries studied. Even Anthony Seldon, master of Wellington College, said that “he is plain wrong to think he will improve schools or the lot of children by shortening holidays. He wants more school time and less home time, because he thinks pupils will work harder and exam results will improve, with holiday time en masse given over to lessons.”

You can certainly never accuse the Laird of Surrey Heath of loafing. In a week awash with educational tsunamis: performance-related pay, Tech Baccs and union baiting, you could have blinked and you’d have missed this carpet bombing of the educational landscape. So, is it fair to say that lengthening the day will also save it?

I’m reminded of my friend Frankie. He used to spend eight hours a day in the gym, five days a week, rain or shine. “I don’t know why I never seem to get any fitter,” he’d say to me, prodding at a spare tyre. “Is it because you’re the janitor?” I suggested. “Maybe you should exercise.”

This fact evades few people: it doesn’t matter how long you spend somewhere, if you do the wrong things you won’t get anywhere. It’s like an inversion of Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 hours and you’re an expert” airport self-help rot, where expertise results from activity alone (in which case most teenage boys would be ninja-level onanists). It takes much more than repetition to master something - although that is also a necessary condition. It certainly takes much, much more than mere presence.

One of the most common pieces of advice I give to schools looking to improve grades, well-being and a hundred other things is simply, “Sort out behaviour - if kids are ricocheting around the school, they’re wasting time they could be learning. Plus, they actually hate rowdy schools.” They sometimes go away a little disappointed, sad that I hadn’t recommended something groovy and expensive such as iPads glued to their undercarriages. Similarly, there’s a far cheaper and more effective way to improve achievement in schools - focus on what you do with students when you already have them. Once you’re satisfied that you’ve maximised the benefit to students within those boundaries, then you can think about expanding your temporal belt.

So if schools are wasting the kids’ time in any way, such as lashing them to the masts of group work, projects, discovery showers and breakout peer-learning crocodiles (I made that one up, but someone will tell me it’s a thing somewhere) then God forbid they should ask them to stay away from home and do more of the same at school.

As Dr Seldon says, some of the best things about school are to be found in the edges and the cracks between, before and after lessons - clubs, teams, groups, trips and activities - and these things are rightly to be encouraged. But leave the school day alone until we get the one they’ve already got right.

I applaud giving schools freedom to make changes that suit the local community, and to tailor their provision to meet needs and abilities. But with great power comes great responsibility. Otherwise, it’s clobberin’ time. For kids.

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Who is Tom Bennett

Tom is a full-time teacher in an inner-city school and he’ll be blogging for us weekly on pedagogy and classroom management. Tom offers regular behaviour advice on the TES website and runs the TES behaviour forum. He also writes for the TES magazine, trains teachers across the UK and is the author of The Behaviour Guru, Not Quite a Teacher and Teacher.