Altering the balance of time

13th September 1996 at 01:00
Schools should create more time for "out of school" learning to raise academic performance, especially among the most disaffected young people, Robin Lingard, chairman of the Prince's Trust study support group in the United Kingdom has suggested. Programmed study beyond the official school hours made a significant contribution.

Mr Lingard, who has spearheaded the campaign for a Highlands and Islands University from his Inverness base, commented: "If you change the nature of the school day so that time in the class is reduced and time associated with the school is extended, you're getting to the nub of it. We need to take account of the fact that young people have a need for academic activity outwith the classroom environment."

Mr Lingard believes study support time is perceived differently by pupils from normal classroom time, and teachers who work on the projects operate in a different fashion. The most disaffected and disillusioned young people respond extremely well to the less formal situation where they have a measure of control, he points out.

As budgets tighten and as the system demands more from less, the accepted and traditional pattern of schooling is being questioned by officials.

A less radical approach to re-organising the school day, week and year is under way in Dumfries and Galloway where school boards will shortly be invited to comment on council proposals which have been circulating for the past six months. Educational and financial arguments support change but many remain sceptical, not least on practical grounds. Teachers seem to be in favour of some aspects and against others. Parents appear opposed.

Christine Dignan, head of secondary and adult education, who headed the council's inquiry, contends there are sound educational reasons why more teaching time should be concentrated in the early part of the day. Essentially, pupils learn more while wider awake, a point accepted by the overwhelming majority of primary and secondary teachers who responded to a questionnaire.

The council has proposed emulating the model, devised in the former Lothian Region, of a four-and-a-half-day week, and has added its own idea of a three-week break at Christmas, a full week's break in February and a shorter summer holiday.

Staff development days in November would be attached to the October holiday and those in February relocated to June. Terms would be more evenly split.

Under the proposed scheme, which would not be implemented before 1998-99, planned activity time would take place on Friday afternoons and allow for primary-secondary liaison.

The advantages Mrs Dignan points out would be fewer lunch-time problems due to shorter breaks, reductions in stress and workload of staff because PAT would be scheduled for an afternoon not the end of the day, greater co-operation between schools on curriculum and staff development, and opportunities for extra-curricular activities on Fridays not assigned for PAT.

Spacing the terms more evenly would also ease pupil and staff stress. Small savings might be achieved by cutting energy bills and on teacher supply during the winter months. A report before last week's education committee on an initial consultation revealed mixed views.

Hazel Peacock, chairman of Laurieston primary school board, said most parents were opposed. The extra week at Christmas would be a wasted week, although that was balanced by support for an extra Easter week.

Sam Scobie, chairman of Belmont Primary school board, pointed to transport problems in rural areas, while early Friday afternoon finishes would cause difficulties for some parents.

For the Educational Institute of Scotland, John McMillan accepted that learning was most effective in the morning but thought the benefits of cramming in more would quickly evaporate. Teachers were lukewarm about restructuring.

A supporter of change, Charles McAteer, head of Dumfries Academy and a member of the council's working party, thought teachers were well disposed to changing the working week in line with the Lothian model but against amending the working year.

He told The TES Scotland: "If we've got curriculum development to carry forward for 5-14 and Higher Still, we need to structure the week in a way that's less stressful for teachers. We currently have PAT on Monday nights and it's not the most productive of times."

Mr McAteer also believes the long summer holidays should be shortened. "I think we should break the year up with more frequent holidays. We need to give teachers relief from the stress of the class. Society and working practices have changed and more people want to take holidays at different times of the year," he explained.

Meanwhile, Edinburgh City Council is considering further research into its school day after parents on its consultative group raised concerns about possible truancy on the shortened Fridays. Education officials, however, maintain that the system is working well and allows better programming of staff development.

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