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Freedom brings that Friday feeling

One free afternoon a week could help both children and teachers to get through the year. Phil Revell reports

A Manchester school is planning to introduce one of the key reforms of the teachers' workload agreement two years ahead of schedule.

Stretford high school is moving to a four-and-a-half-day week to free up more planning and preparation time for its staff. "They need this time now," says Karen Todd, the headteacher. "This is a challenging school, teachers get ground down. At the end of term people are running on empty."

From September, the community language college will end the week at lunchtime on Fridays. Teachers will then spend the afternoon doing departmental work and following in-service training programmes, while their 760 pupils choose from a smorgasbord of activities - ranging from horse-riding to work-experience.

Unlike a similar scheme at a Plymouth primary, this is not part of the Government's Pathfinder programme piloting innovative ways to reduce workload. Stretford is on its own and slightly nervous as a consequence.

"September could go horribly wrong for us," acknowledges Ms Todd. The nightmare scenario is that children in the school's green jumpers will wander through the community causing mayhem.

"But that will not happen," she adds bluntly. "We already run a Saturday school which is a hive of activity. We are going to have a lot of discussion with children about what they want to do."

Parents will be asked to sign a home-school agreement stipulating where the children will be on Fridays. The pupils will have taster sessions and assemblies on what is on offer. Funding is expected to come from a diverse range of grants and budgets - local, regional and European. And an equally wide range of community partners, many of which already work with the school, will run the programmes.

"We're hoping to develop a sports academy," says Stretford sports development officer Donald Johnson. "Already we can see ourselves being oversubscribed - that's a great problem to have."

Nicole Joseph is a youth worker who runs an alternative curriculum for some Stretford students. She sees Friday afternoons as an ideal slot for the activities she offers. Stretford high is just down the road from Old Trafford, and sports development staff from Manchester United have also expressed interest in the plans.

However, legal and health and safety issues will have to be confronted because many activities will take place off-site. Partner organisations will have to ensure Criminal Records Bureau checks for staff.

New powers to innovate were given to schools in last year's Education Act, including the power to vary the school day. Existing legislation stipulates that schools must open for two sessions a day with a break in the middle (see box).

In Plymouth, Langley junior school was allowed to change its week under the new freedom to innovate powers. But Karen Todd has simply declared two short sessions on Fridays, and will make up the required 25 hours of teaching time in the rest of the week.

That appears to mean a longer week for staff. But Ms Todd says that there will be fewer meetings from Monday to Thursday because Friday afternoon will offer "better quality time". She says her staff will work fewer hours overall and she is expecting sickness absences to drop. In the end, the success or failure of the scheme will depend on Stretford's pupils. Will they sign up, or will they succumb to the temptation to browse the shops in the huge Trafford Centre - just a couple of miles down the road?


* The Education (School Day and School Year) (England) Regulations 1999 stipulate that schools must open for 380 half-day sessions in each academic year. If there are two sessions per day, this works out as 190 school days.

It might be possible to disapply this regulation using the "power to innovate", but schools would need to consider the childcare issues thrown up by not having afternoon school and how the change could raise standards.

* Additional professional time for marking and preparation is suggested in Time for Standards, the national agreement on workload signed in January and currently out for consultation.

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