As I follow the debate about the catch-up agenda, I’m feeling very glad that my childhood was safely over in the past millennium. Perhaps it’s just nostalgia, but I have the happiest memories of playing outside, going to the park or visiting friends – or sitting in my room reading.
I read books about children who were abandoned by their parents and left to the mercies of eccentric relatives. This fictional neglect made the novels’ heroes more resourceful and more independent, so that they could overcome all kinds of dangers and difficulties. And, of course, it gave me many happy hours in this imagined world.
I wonder what kind of novels we could write about today’s children, confined by the extended school day that is the Holy Grail for politicians – but not really for anybody else. As MPs try to make their mark in parliamentary debate, I fear that more and more precious hours are about to be shaved off the time that children have in which to be themselves.
Undoubtedly, the pandemic and lockdowns have put immense strain on young people, who have been compelled to stay at home under circumstances that no one would choose. But that does not mean that they would prefer to be in school for longer hours, even if they were given all kinds of different activities to do.
Covid catch-up: The danger of a longer school day
Those who offer suggestions for all kinds of extracurricular activities may have the best interests of children at heart. But “the best interests” is an adult construct.
I find it interesting how suddenly there are calls for musical and dramatic activities to be made more widely available – in sessions after school. But where is the money to fund music and the arts in the curriculum to ensure that our children leave school as fully rounded individuals?
Academic cramming has been allowed to displace the arts and music. Budgets have been stretched beyond being able to resource enriching experiences. Yes, children would benefit enormously from the arts – but not necessarily in their own time. Any extension to the school day merely colonises the time children used to have for themselves – which is rather less than we think they have.
It’s easy to forget that school days don’t start and end at the published opening and closing times. As secondary schools and academies increase in size, children often suffer adult-length commutes. Local small schools have been deemed unviable economically, and thus children are now loaded into school buses or family cars. They may leave home as early as 7am or 7.30am, and not return until 5.30pm or even 6pm.
Children don’t get that much time in the evening for themselves. The evening meal takes up time and so does homework, which means that personal time may not even start until 8pm. What’s the use in that?
Children often have siblings with whom they play and adults with whom to interact. They learn from those around them in the home how to conduct relationships within their own environment. This is a much more important aspect of anyone’s development than politicians would have us believe.
Giving children space just to be
The stability of any society is founded on the stability of its family groups. Keeping children away from these groups may free up more time for parents to work and contribute to the economy.
But parents don’t always want to have their children minded by someone else. And they might quite like some quality time together after the woes and highs of the school day have been discussed. School should not bleed into family life longer than it already does.
The trouble with school is that, in spite of the different subjects it offers, the approach tends to remain the same. Children constantly do things – school does not really offer them space just to be.
The Victorians believed that “the devil makes work for idle hands to do”. Perish the thought that children could ever be permitted to be bored! But do we, in modern times, have to ensure that there is no space in children’s lives that they can call their own?
An extended school day would eat into the home- and community-based activities that children enjoy, such as being part of teams in various sports outside school. Many promising cricketers, footballers, hockey players and netballers – to name but a few – are discovered through their local team structures. Tagging on extra time to schooling eats into the time for children to be part of community teams.
Children who enjoy drama have other opportunities, such as local community theatre. The benefits are clear: they can act with adults and learn from them socially.
And then there are the children who like to sit and watch television to unwind. Of course, many programmes aren’t educational. Life’s like that.
But some children watch soaps and learn unconsciously to enjoy the structure and the stories. We all need stories to help us one day master our own narratives. Children may well read and reread books for all kinds of reasons, not least of which is the chance to escape from the mundane and pressurised reality of endless school and the exams factory it has become.
And some children simply daydream. The brain has been in overdrive all day, so why not?
Yvonne Williams has spent nearly 34 years in the classroom and 22 years as a head of English. She has contributed chapters on workload and wellbeing to Mentoring English Teachers in the Secondary School, edited by Debbie Hickman (Routledge)