One of the key purposes of colleges, many believe, is to prepare their students for the world of work. It is, of course, why learning at college is so practical and hands-on, and why the relationships colleges have built with local and national employers are so essential.
As such, it was interesting to chat to a college principal who suggested that the college day should resemble working hours in trades and professions more closely. This, he said, could mean not only an almost shift-like pattern to classes, with early starts where required, but also changes to the academic year structure, leading to shorter holidays.
Contrast that with reports in the English edition of this magazine last week, which told the tale of three colleges that were planning to fundamentally restructure their day and their timetables – in ways which, at first glance, may seem counter to that agenda.
They had moved from the traditional one- or two-hour class structure to longer blocks – up to three hours each – allowing students to properly settle into a subject area in a way one principal said was much more like engaging with a project in a workplace.
But alongside that, two of them moved the start of timetabled classes from 9am to 10am to allow for “teenage brains” to be at their best. Evidence suggested, the principals said, that a later start suited the sleeping pattern of young people better, meaning they were “match-fit” when they came to college.
The idea of a later start has also been floated in the school sector – with equally mixed reactions. The research evidence, of course, is less than clear on this. A report published in December, based on research carried out in the United States, concluded that pushing back school start times could help teenagers to make almost a year’s extra progress. However, research published in March argued that delaying school start times would simply cause most teenagers to adjust, meaning they soon found it just as hard to get out of bed for the later start time.
There are, of course, lies, damn lies, and educational research findings.
Indeed, I am as on the fence about this as the academic literature is.
If the point of a college is to prepare young people for work, should we not start the college day earlier instead? Are we not making it even harder for college students to adjust to the world of work we all want them to enter when they leave? And actually, for that matter, shouldn’t the same apply in schools? Are we not doing young people a disservice saying they simply cannot cope with early starts?
But then again, college is not work. It is part of education, in the same way that university is not work. We do not judge universities on the fact that – and I have personal experience in this – many degrees require no more than six hours of actual weekly teaching time.
College should teach young people both the hard and soft skills they need, and the confidence they require, to secure their first job in their chosen field.
Whatever the job, it is likely to involve a new, scary environment for them, no matter what colleges do.
It is with this in mind that colleges should do everything in their power to structure their working day in a way that best sets students on course to be ready for the workplace. As such, colleges really ought to ensure their timetables reflect the industries in which they want their students will succeed.
Entering the world of work is hard enough without additional barriers in place. And that includes getting used to a lie-in when you’re about to start getting up with the birds to go bricklaying.