Pupils in British schools attend for 190 days out of 365 and for as little as a quarter of each day. A simple calculation shows schools are used for just 13 per cent of the possible total time available.
There is little chance of us delivering more resources in the classroom while we are putting scarce resources into buildings which remain largely unused for 87 per cent of the time.
Add to the equation the inappropriate nature of the three-term year and the impact of technology on learning, and the need for a radical rethink on how we organise learning and the learning year is called for.
A report by the Funding Agency for Schools, Planning Secondary School Places in London, suggests that an extra 10,000 and maybe even 20,000 secondary school places will be needed by 2003 in London. But some buildings will then become surplus to requirements as the "bulge" of pupils moves through the system, adding even further to the levels of unused building capacity.
What can be done to re-engineer the situation so that resources are not wasted on uneconomic buildings but are targeted on learning - and, at the same time, to reassess the way we organise learning to meet the needs of the 21st century?
The Funding Agency for Schools is sponsoring research to look at alternative schooling patterns. The research is a collaborative effort between the agency, the University of Lincolnshire and Humberside and pilot schools. The objects are to: provide more resources for pupils; improve the pattern of learning; enhance learning opportunities through the use of technology outside the normal school day and term; and fund those improvements by saving on building costs.
How is this to be achieved? The pilot schools are to establish different feasibility studies based on the use of "tracking" systems in schools. A simple example would be where a school of 180 pupils is split into three groups of 60 pupils, and a fourth track of 60 is then added. The school is able to accommodate the extra pupils, not by additional building but by organising a different learning cycle or "track" for each group of pupils. If we imagine a year of four nine-week terms broken up by three-week holiday periods, plus an additional 10 days of technology-based learning (not necessarily at school), then a pattern like the one shown in the diagram below emerges.
It is possible, therefore, to have three groups, or tracks, in school at any one time and one track on holiday. The system would still allow core holidays, around Christmas, for example, for all tracks. This then increases the capacity of the school by 33 per cent.
This is just one variant of tracking; it is possible to arrange different tracking patterns to account for three, four, five or six learning periods. It is the principle of multiple and more effective usage that is important.
So what would be the gains of such a system?
Better-spaced teaching and vacation times would reduce teacher and pupil exhaustion and give more time for focused learning.
There would be an opportunity, through more regular and equal vacation periods, to provide extra support for the pupils struggling to master basic skills.
And learning would be taking place in school for 180 days, with the other 10 days set aside for learning outside the traditional school using technology or with industrial links. This builds the culture of learning outside as well as inside the school.
The store of money saved through not having to engage in additional building works could be used to meet not only the marginal costs of operating the scheme but to make significant investment in the new learning technologies to enhance the learning opportunities for all the pupils in schools.
There are obviously problems in changing the school year and pattern of attendance of pupils. However, we are faced with stark choices. It is no longer acceptable to argue for spending scarce additional resources on buildings that are inefficiently used instead of thinking of imaginative ways of putting that money into classrooms.
What we have seen so far in the city technology colleges, for example, is a move to a five-term year but without increasing capacity and releasing resources. As we approach the 21st century, new thinking is needed to maximise opportunities for pupils. The aim of our research is to demonstrate how more efficient use of resources can be achieved by using a "tracking" approach.
Professor Brent Davies is director of the International Educational Leadership Centre at Lincoln University Campus, Brayford Pool, Lincoln LN6 7TS. Tel: 01522 882 000. He would welcome comments and information to help the project