Ministers want to establish 'an out-of-school-hours entitlement' for older primary and secondary pupils. Susannah Kirkman examines what research indicates about the success of after-school programmes.
DO AFTER-SCHOOL programmes actually improve educational standards? Inspection evidence suggests that the critical factor is how effectively time is used within the school day. But there has been very little rigorous evaluation of whether a longer school day really benefits pupils.
The research that has been carried out does not allow for variables such as social class and different learning styles, says Trevor Kerry, visiting professor at the International Education Leadership Centre at the University of Lincolnshire and Humberside. But research suggests that long study sessions can cause pupils to stagnate.
"Pupils can only benefit from extra teaching time to a certain extent. Simply sitting children in classes for longer isn't the answer," Professor Kerry says.
The wrong sort of out-of-hours schooling may even have a negative effect. According to Professor John MacBeath of the University of Strathclyde: "The extended school day which offers more of the same, or more of what has already failed for some, may be counter-productive - whereas a shorter day with more opportunity for study support, mentoring, coaching and collaborative projects may be more effective."
Professor MacBeath is director of the most extensive research project ever mounted into the effects of the extended school day, tracking all Year 9 pupils in 50 schools over three years until after their GCSE results. Many of the pupils are taking part in a variety of study-support and out-of-hours learning groups.
The research will analyse students' attitudes to school, to homework and to self-study, as well as their attendance and attainment. It will also look at the impact of out-of-hours learning on the development of pupils' leadership skills and initiative.
Government support for a longer school day was originally mooted by Michael Barber, one of Tony Blair's key education advisers, back in 1996. Professor Barber suggested an eight-hour day, with lessons in the morning and a wide range of activities such as sport, arts or community service in the afternoon.
Government ministers have, however, been partly inspired by successful after-school enrichment programmes in the United States, particularly in deprived inner-city areas. Estelle Morris, school standards minister, has been impressed by the after-school and holiday schemes that she visited in Chicago. American projects have also influenced the decision of the 15 city technology colleges to pioneer a longer school day.
At Thomas Telford secondary, in Shropshire, which had the best GCSE results of any state school last year, the commitment to an extended school day was based partly on research into successful American schemes analysed by Professor Alan Brymer, project director for the school.
The school has a teaching week of between 31 and 35 hours, up to 10 hours longer than the 24-25 teaching hours recommended by the Government for scondary schools. But it is not just a question of spending extra time in the classroom, says the head, Kevin Satchwell.
"The longer day gives youngsters a wider range of enrichment activities like sport, music and the performing arts, raising their self-esteem and boosting academic outcomes," he says. But the Thomas Telford pupils also benefit from a very high standard of teaching; 78 per cent of the school's lessons received the highest grade in a recent Office for Standards in Education inspection. The school was also lucky enough to be able to build in the longer day from its inception, rather than relying on the goodwill of teachers to run the extra
The Government has also been impressed by the opportunities offered to pupils in the independent sector by the extended school day. Tony Blair made clear in a speech in December that he wanted all children to have such opportunities.
Prep schools offer a weekly timetable of just over 30 hours' teaching to 11 and 14-year-olds, compared with the recommended minimum of 24 hours in the state sector, according to an extensive survey carried out by the Incorporated Association of Preparatory Schools.
The extra teaching time allows the schools to provide a much broader curriculum, including sport, art and music, according to David Hanson, education director at the IAPS.
"In the state sector, a diverse curriculum has been sacrificed on the altar of literacy and numeracy," he says. Some 85 per cent of prep schools also provide after-school care, with a wide range of different clubs and activities for pupils.
But extending the school day is not just about extending the curriculum. As research into successful after-school projects in the US has established, lengthening the school day can also help to develop a range of skills and attitudes to learning. American programmes commonly include goals such as raising self-esteem and developing social skills.
WHAT MAKES A SUCCESSFUL EXTENDED DAY?
Academic: Where possible, schools should use existing teaching staff to run the programmes, if children's school performance is to be improved. Any volunteers should be well-trained.
Recreational: Sport can provide opportunities for children to learn not only good sportsmanship but problem-solving and coping strategies.
Cultural: Hobbies such as woodwork, playing a musical instrument and drama can develop new skills and raise children's self-esteem.
Objectives: Programmes need clear goals, well-developed procedures and adequate resources. To be really effective, they need strong links with the school curriculum.
Assessment: Schools need to evaluate the success of their own programmes, looking at specific gains made by pupils and comparing them with the progress of non-participants.
Families: Families should be included in designing after-school schemes. Children are more likely to attend if their families have been involved.
(Source: Urban after-school programs: Evaluations and Recommendations, ERICCUE Digest, Number 140. http:www.ed.govdatabasesERIC_Digestsed402370.html)