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Billie's dawn patrol

The 24-hour school may seem a nightmare for some teachers. But for this Year 10 pupil, the flexi-timetable means she can be at school for breakfast club by 7am and learning only 30 minutes later. Hannah Frankel reports on a classroom revolution

Fed up with having to work an extra day this leap year? Well imagine having to go into school on Boxing Day, during the holidays or at 8pm. This is not fiction: round-the-clock schools, already established in the US, are fast becoming a reality in the UK as heads attempt to increase choice and personalisation within a notoriously crowded timetable.

Flexi-timetables recognise that young people do not learn the way they used to. The internet ensures that pupils can access any information anytime, anywhere. Research also indicates that older pupils work better in the afternoons, while younger pupils are more receptive to numeracy and literacy first thing.

Yet the school day remains frozen in the 19th century, argues Paul Mortimer, who has been experimenting with school timetables since his first headship in 1989. The traditional school year is modelled on factories, he says, where children of a similar age are split into manageable groups of 30. They are clocked in and out during daylight hours for the same five days a week, 38 weeks a year, more out of convenience than any pedagogic considerations.

"The national curriculum won't fit into the current timetable, especially with 14-19 diplomas becoming compulsory this September," Paul says. The first five diplomas - extended projects that will combine academic study with vocational work - will demand greater collaboration and movement between schools, colleges, universities and local businesses. It will not work, Paul warns, if all schools open and close at the same time.

"Pupils only spend about 15 per cent of their 38 school weeks actually in school," he says. "The rest of the time is spent on eating, leisure or moving around. What we need to do is bite into that remaining 85 per cent of time while still sticking to the legal requirement of 380 teaching sessions a year."

Bridgemary Community Sports College in Gosport, Hampshire, aims to wrap its timetable around all its pupils' diverse personal needs. Following an extensive consultation period, it has embarked on the first of four phases that will eventually see some form of learning available 24 hours a day.

Since September, 60 Year 10 volunteers have come into school for the early window, which starts with a free 7am breakfast and typically finishes at 1.30pm. Uptake for the late window - from 10am to 4pm - was surprisingly low, so that has been temporarily put on hold. However, the ultimate plan is to make learning available to pupils and the wider community well into the night.

"We want to give each child an individual lifestyle plan that meets their needs," says Cheryl Heron, principal. "This is a deprived area of Gosport and a lot of our pupils are young carers or have jobs, so they miss out on learning. If a lot of university students work late into the night, why not younger pupils?"

Although Cheryl recognises that the school has a truancy problem - pupils are absent for at least one-fifth of sessions - she insists that other measures are in place to tackle attendance, including a full-time police officer. Instead, the flexi-timetable aims to free up specialist facilities such as science laboratories, increase choice and allow teachers to work with smaller groups of pupils.

Truancy certainly wasn't the problem for Billie Briggs, 14. It was more that school clashed with her other responsibilities. "I've got lots to do in the afternoons, like babysitting and picking up my younger brother from football, so it suits me to leave school earlier," she says. Under the new regime, she gets up at 5am so that she can walk to school and have a relaxed breakfast on site. "I was a bit tired at first but you get used to it."

Fifteen-year-old Ryan Morby's father is in the Army and works away for most of the week, so it is up to him to help his mother with his younger sisters. "The new timetable gives me a bit more time to myself at home," he says. "I can do my homework in the hour after school before it gets noisy."

The next step is to extend the opportunity to Year 9s and 11s, as well as more teachers. At the moment, just six of the core subject teachers have been offered flexitime, but all involved recognise its advantages.

"I sometimes do longer days but then I can leave early once or twice a week," says Nancy Waits, a maths teacher. "It meant I was at home to see my daughter take her first step. Teachers are often in well before school starts anyway, so I'm happy to be in and teaching and having that recognised with shorter afternoons."

John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, gives the trend a cautious welcome, although he would rather shift the focus from all-night working to pupils' preferred learning styles.

"For me, a 24-hour school would not mean teachers on duty all day and night," he says. "Instead, it would give pupils the opportunity to learn from a school's intranet or download and revise units on their iPod.

"Whether we see a change in teachers' contracts so they become more like those of FE lecturers - whereby teachers perhaps work 10 sessions a week spread over mornings, afternoons and evenings - remains to be seen, but it is certain to be on the agenda over the next few years."

The main concern from the National Union of Teachers is the effect this will have on teachers' childcare arrangements. Plus, says John Bangs, head of education, you have to spare a thought for the poor person tasked with designing such an individualised timetable.

At Bridgemary College, Richard Carlyle is that man. As vice-principal, he is responsible for constructing the college's increasingly personalised timetable, but he is not complaining.

"We all share this vision so I'm as determined as everyone else to make it happen," he says. "It does take more work, but it's also quite liberating. I started with a completely blank sheet of paper and took nothing for granted. By starting small and developing it slowly, it grows quite organically."

But both Richard and Cheryl stress that while this process works for them, it might not be possible for everyone. For example, most of Bridgemary's cohort live within walking distance of the college. A school that depends on public transport or buses may have to rethink.

These are all issues that Paul Mortimer is carefully considering before taking the helm at the proposed Isle of Sheppey Academy, off the north coast of Kent. The academy, which is due to open next September, will be the largest school in the country, with up to 3,000 pupils spread over two sites. "We will need a new approach to time otherwise it won't work," says Paul, principal designate. "We'll offer all 16 diplomas but, because the sites are two miles apart, there'll be a lot of bus journeys between. To allow movement, we'll need longer days."

The details are still being worked out, but Paul can foresee pupils learning in the holidays, from home, or even in large lecture theatres more akin to universities than schools.

"The key thing is to change our emphasis from 'teaching time' to 'learning time'. That kind of thinking will open up the day so that we can formalise and embed personalisation."

Benefits of extended hours

- Resolves overcrowding without further capital expenditure.

- Frees specialist facilities such as computer rooms.

- Promotes personalised curriculum, plus smaller teacherpupil ratios.

- Allows teachers more flexible hours and a better worklife balance.

- Opens school to the wider community, including primary pupil visits.

- Primes schools for the introduction of the new 14-19 diplomas.


Hugh Christie Technology College, Tonbridge, Kent

Hugh Christie is one of two secondaries in Kent trialling a government pilot that encourages schools to experiment with their use of time. The newly-rebuilt college is smaller than its predecessor, despite having more pupils. Clearly something had to give.

"We've had to be more flexible with time to accommodate more pupils," says Jon Barker, principal. "It's better than having a big school that sits empty a lot."

Hugh Christie has responded by staggering start times: those aged 15 or over begin at 10.30am, two hours after the younger pupils. This still means the school is at full stretch from 10.30am to 3.15pm, but it relieves pressure at either end of the day.

There is less demand on labs, computer suites, sports facilities and specialist staff in the first and last parts of the day.

"Government says popular schools should expand but you can't extend indefinitely without significant investment and space," says Jon.

"You see new builds still having to work from mobile classrooms. The answer is not more buildings but better use of buildings."

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