Do longer school days work? Lessons from history

The idea of lengthening the school day to help pupils catch up may sound logical - but history shows it's not that simple

Dan Worth

Covid catch-up: Would longer school days work?

Longer school days and shorter summer holidays. Two ideas to make even the hardiest teacher wince.

Yet that’s the plan apparently being discussed in Whitehall as a solution to closing the education gaps that Covid-19 has caused due to so much lost learning time in school. It sounds logical in theory: more time in school equals more learning, right?

Well, the idea of longer school days or longer terms as a means to boost educational outcomes is not new – with many studies looking at situations where school years or days have been made longer or shorter, and what the long-term impact has been.

Longer school days in Argentina

Take this study from Argentina published in 2009 that looked at the long-term trends of a quirk that occurred in 1971 when the Argentinian government ordered half the public primary schools in Buenos Aires to run longer school days.

The study was led by Professor Juan José Llach, from the IAE Business School in Buenos Aries, who told Tes that the national government instituted the blanket rule for the city quite randomly.

“It was applied just in the city of Buenos Aires, yet ruled by the national government. Curiously enough, one principal reason was facilitating women access to the labour market” he said.

This randomness meant that “an unusual opportunity for a natural experiment was created”.

So in 2006 and 2007, the researchers interviewed a sample of 380 alumni of the 1971 cohort, 30 years after their graduation in 1977 – from both the schools with longer days (termed "double shift" (DS)) and those without.

The results were mixed.

While they found that students who attended DS primary schools had a 21 per cent higher chance of going on to graduate from secondary school, this was primarily driven by students from low socioeconomic status families, suggesting that the impact was not purely educational but more about time in school itself leading to graduation.

This is good news for the role school plays overall in helping children to progress through life – but it is not what the longer school day plan in England is about, given that this is more geared towards academic outcomes.

Indeed, on this point, the study is perhaps less helpful with the researchers finding that pupils who had been in the DS primary schools did not have notably better income or employment outcomes in later life or knowledge of a second language – despite this being a subject they all took at school.

“[This] suggests that the quality of the content and learning in DS schools was not good,” say the researchers – underlining that quality often matters a lot more than quantity.

Quality of learning over quantity 

Elaborating on this, Professor Llach told Tes: “The additional contents given in the extra two hours per day were poor – reinforcing contents already given in the morning or traditional handicrafts. It was not given to the students the opportunity to widen their knowledge or perspectives." 

While a school event that occurred 50 years ago may not offer a like-for-like comparison, Professor Llach says it does allow us to draw some parallels.

“It is not conclusive but is relevant, because is very unusual to have the opportunity to perform a quasi-natural experiment," he said.

“It was possible to make [the research] rigorous because in each neighbourhood it was possible to identify two very similar schools, one with double shift and another one without it.”

Six months of extra education in Indonesia

Like in Argentina, a unique event happened in Indonesia in the 1970s that offers more insights into how different school years can impact learning.

Prior to 1978, the school year in Indonesia ran from January until December. Then in 1978, to align with the government’s budget calendar, it was switched to start in July and end in June.

For the cohort who started in January 1978, this meant they received an extra six months of education – from January until June.

In 2014 Rasyad Parinduri, associate professor of business economics and chair of the research ethics committee in the Faculty of Social Sciences at Nottingham University Business School, researched the impact on the life outcomes for this cohort who received this extra six months of education.

Broadly speaking, his research found that “the longer school year decreases grade repetition and increases educational attainment” – and that it also helped boost earnings in later life for this cohort, although not their direct employability.

The point on grade repetition is perhaps most notable, as the idea of students not being able to progress through education with the requisite knowledge – especially when they reach exam years – will be one of the biggest educational concerns for the government.

But are the school experiences of Indonesia and Argentina in the 1970s really a comparable model to the UK in 2020?

A shorter school year in Germany

Well, putting the date issue aside, we can move a little closer to home geographically by looking at a research paper that analysed a situation in Germany where the opposite of what happened in Indonesia occurred – the school year got shorter.

The study was led by Professor Steve Pischke, from the London School of Economics. He told Tes that this shortening happened in 1966-7 when most of the West German states moved their school start dates from April to September.

This meant students received only a third of their usual schooling – losing up to 26 weeks in total.

Because of this situation, the government put a lot of energy into trying to ensure that pupils did not miss out on any learning. “The curriculum was compressed and sped up during this period but the content was not meant to be significantly reduced,” he told Tes.

Did it work? Yes and no: “The main findings from the analysis of the short school years are that affected children did worse in terms of test scores immediately after the episode, and there was more grade repetition,” Professor Pischke says.

However, he notes that test scores did even out within about two years afterwards again, suggesting the longer-term impact was not as severe.

The future life impacts on these pupils were also mostly negligible: “One of the main contributions of my study is to look at later outcomes in the labour market and I find no effects in terms of earnings or employment,” adds Professor Pischke.

While this is an interesting set of findings, as Professor Pischke notes, it is “difficult to extrapolate directly from these results to the current situation”, given the changes in how schools operate since the 1960s.

An extended school day in the US

Coming more into the present day, a study from America offers a niche but interesting insight into the impact that extra education during the school day can have.

In this study, researchers examined the impact that occurred in 2012 when the lowest 100 performing primary schools in Florida, as measured by pupil reading ability, were required to add an hour of additional literacy instruction to their day as part of an Extended School Day (ESD) programme.

The researchers found that students who went on to receive this extra tuition subsequently performed better in reading than students who were in schools just above the ESD cut-off point and so did not receive this extra hour of literacy teaching.

However, this impact was not evenly distributed, with it having more benefit for students with “basic, yet limited, skills in reading” as opposed to those with the “lowest reading skills” – which, in fact, may only serve to increase the gap between those at the bottom and those above.

A second study from America, based on wider 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) data, found a similar broad pattern that increased instruction time boosts results.

“The empirical analysis shows that achievement increases with instruction time,” the researchers wrote.

However, there is an important caveat – it is not just the fact that there is more time that has the impact but also the sort of setting in which that time is being used.

“The increase varies by both amount of time and classroom environment. These results indicate that school circumstances are important determinants of the likely benefits and desirability of increased instruction time.”

So in short, a good classroom environment is fundamental for good learning. Perhaps not a huge surprise.

In fact, in a learning environment that does not provide good learning opportunities, the effect of more time could be detrimental, the researchers said: “Additional time might be expected to degrade further the quality of the classroom environment as it becomes more difficult for students to sit and listen.”

Wellbeing issues

But what about the other benefits of being in school that children have missed out on for so long – socialisation, pastoral care and their overall wellbeing?

These are big issues that many teachers and education experts are raising as an important element if any catch-up plan that involves longer days or terms is implemented. Yet to date almost no studies on this side of longer school days exist.

Indeed, in an in-depth literacy review of 15 studies into longer school days, led by Professor Erika Patall, researchers noted that, “outcomes other than achievement are scarcely studied”.

The paper continues: “Little evidence exists examining the effects of extended school time on non-achievement measures. [Longer days/terms] might have an impact on students' motivation, attitudes towards themselves, school or coursework, conduct, discipline, attendance or fatigue, among other school-related outcomes. Furthermore, extended school time is likely to affect whole families in terms of their happiness or quality of living.”

Pupil and teacher exhaustion

The reference to fatigue is an important point that gets to another issue that longer school days could create - as neuroscientist, educator and author Dr Jared Cooney Horvath explained in Tes last year.

He explained that there is only so much time humans can learn before new information is not retained.

"As there’s a finite amount of energy in our body, this means there’s a finite amount of time that we can spend in active learning mode before burning out," he said.

“The official term used to describe this phenomenon is cognitive fatigue, and if you’ve ever attended an all-day professional learning conference, you’ve likely experienced this process.”

He said that for the average pupil – and ignoring numerous contextual factors such as sleep or diet – there is probably around three hours of full engagement in learning that can occur in any one day before learning returns start to diminish. This is, no doubt, something teachers see in afternoon lessons.

“Performance doesn’t remain strong until you completely tap out. Performance decreases with sustained effort,” he said.

He cited research that said, for example, individuals who study for 60 minutes remember, on average, only 9 per cent more than people who study the same material for 30 minutes – nowhere near the double one may expect.

So teachers may teach for many more hours, but only a very limited amount of that information will go in – and all the while it could be causing huge exhaustion to pupils, affecting their wellbeing, and maybe causing stress over the perceived unfairness of being in school for even longer.

Shorter breaks?

What then about shortening break times? That would claw back more lesson time without making the school day seem so never-ending to pupils (and teachers), would it not?

Research from Institute of Education (IoE) at UCL led by Dr Ed Baines found that the loss of break time for pupils – at all ages – can be highly detrimental with regards to losing the chance for socialisation and overall wellbeing but also time to recharge and refresh ahead of lessons.

“Breaktime can be seen from a range of different perspectives as an opportunity for children to develop friendships, and form relationships with new people that have an impact on their future relationships,” he tells Tes.

“[And] there is evidence that break times are important in learning – if lessons are broken up over the course of the day with regular breaks, that is enough to enable [pupils] to take stock and their brains to be able to catch up with what they are learning and do something different.”

As such, he warns that shorter breaks and longer schools days could cause more problems than they solve: “In many respects pushing a longer school day or year could be counter-productive in the long run.”

Teacher burnout?

Dr Baines notes, too, that teachers are much the same – breaks are important and overly long school days will not be conducive to a good mental state or allow them to deliver quality teaching. Extending the school day after the added stress and upheaval of lockdown may also be highly detrimental.

“There is already a declining teacher population and schools can find it very hard to keep staff, and extending the school day would only add to that problem. Policymakers need to think very  carefully about this.”

Whether they are thinking carefully is another matter. Perhaps, though, they can draw on research that has investigated what impact longer school days have on teachers and their mental health, wellbeing or ability to be effective teachers.

They could try, but, as Professor Patall noted in her study, this is an area that has been almost entirely overlooked.

“Extended school time is likely to affect teachers in terms of the quality of teaching they provide, their job satisfaction or their overall wellbeing. Rarely have any of these outcomes been examined empirically,” she says.

Teachers are probably not surprised.

Dan Worth is senior editor at Tes

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