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Case study: Robert May's school

Our school day is very intensive. It starts at 8.30am and lessons finish at 2.20pm, when students are free to go home. But to think of this as the end of the school day would be wrong. We then begin the third phase of the school day, offering a range of after-school activities that are an important part of our educational provision within the community. Sports clubs can continue outside right through the winter as it is still light, extra lessons can be timetabled for students wishing to take additional GCSEs, homework can be done for an hour in the library, at the homework club or in one of the ICT suites and students can still be home by 4pm. I'm interested in the idea of extended schools and this is something we may well explore in the future.

But the fact remains that the statutory part of what we offer is done and dusted by the early afternoon, with most learning taking place in the morning. How do we manage to finish at such an early hour? We have six lessons, each lasting 50 minutes, with just two 20-minute breaks. It makes for a rigorous day, which can take a bit of getting used to, though staff and students seem to cope well.

I'm not sure about the original thinking behind our shortened day. I've been headteacher here for just six years and this structure has been in place for almost 20. Other local schools are moving towards a similar model, but we were probably pioneers. I do know that it was introduced after careful consultation with parents, and it's continued because it seems to work. The school has a positive ethos, gets very good results, and is heavily over-subscribed - so together with good teaching, it's clearly a successful formula. I believe students learn better in the mornings than in the afternoons.

A definite advantage of the early finish is that staff and students are more willing to stay behind after school. Extracurricular activities and out-of-hours learning thrive in a way that would be impossible if we were trying to squeeze them into a 50-minute lunch break. It's also easier for teachers to organise their planning and marking flexibly. The school day here goes a long way towards ensuring a good work-life balance for the staff.

People always ask: "What about lunch?" Students can eat in either of the two breaks: at 10.20am or 12.15pm. Most choose the later break. They can bring a packed lunch, or they can eat in the cafeteria, which sells sandwiches, salads and some hot food. This is the one part of the day we might have to look at changing slightly, because it puts an incredible strain on the catering staff. Robert May's has 1,200 students. They don't all use the cafeteria, but even so, getting students through in just 20 minutes is a challenge. If we do alter things it will just be a case of adding a few extra minutes. We certainly have no intention of switching to a 40-minute lunch break.

Consultations with parents still take place from time to time, to check that everyone is happy with the way we organise ourselves. The early start doesn't present any problems, and punctuality is rarely an issue. In the winter months we offer breakfast before school, so a lot of students come in even earlier. The fact that students leave the school at different times does mean transport arrangements are more difficult, especially as we're in a semi-rural area and 80 per cent of pupils travel by bus. New parents can be a bit concerned about the idea of such an early finish, but once they understand the ethos of the school and the "third phase" they're usually happy. The main point is that we're not turning children out into the street; if they want to stay in school, the activities we offer will keep them occupied until well past a traditional end-of-school time.

Susan Rafter is headteacher at Robert May's school in Odiham, Hampshire.

She was talking to Steven Hastings

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