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Days filled to the brim

BACK in the 1920s, primary teachers used to show their disregard for the timetable by turning it towards the wall. One legendary Lancashire headteacher, Teddy O'Neill, preferred to cover it with a print of The Laughing Cavalier.

How times change. Now primary teachers have to contend with the literacy and numeracy hours while the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority issues fastidiously precise suggestions on how the school year should be apportioned - 7 per cent for science at key stage 1 but 8 per cent at key stage 2, and so on.

There are advantages as well as disadvantages in this approach, but it is hardly surprising that critics such as Michael Morpurgo, the prizewinning children's writer, complain that "dream time" has been squeezed out of the curriculum. It is no coincidence either that primary teachers have less time for non-essential - but important - chats with children about their hobbies, pets and family.

Extending the school day, as hundreds of primaries have apparently done, is one solution to this problem. But this trend, which will be popular with working parents, will have to be carefullywatched.

By cutting lunchbreaks and playtimes in order to squeeze in more lessons, some primaries may upset the natural balance of the school day. Wall Street's Gordon Gecko may have declared that "lunch is for wimps", but he was wrong. Children's social development can suffer if playtimes are slashed and lunch has to be gulped down (even though discipline improves).

Before they eat into this social time, schools will have to ask themselves whether they are making best use of the hours that are currently available and how much benefit a longer day will produce. Research has consistently shown that there is no clear link between the length of the school day, or year, and children's level of attainment.

If the school day is to be extended it should be in a way that both children and teachers - already working 50 hours a week on average - will enjoy. That miracle has been achieved in the many primaries offering after-school clubs in subjects from Latin to line dancing. This could surely be transplanted to other schools - but no one should be surprised if teachers mention the dread word "overtime".

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