Indelible email and a harder day's night

22nd September 2006 at 01:00
You can imagine the press office conversation. "Extended schools - toast in the morning, games after school - it's the perfect good news story.

"New research shows they're working, we're well ahead of target on opening them and we could pack Bev (Beverley Hughes, the minister responsible) off to Devon to watch some pupils drumming. Job done!"

But by Sunday evening, the Department for Education and Skills' spin machine, which came off its wheels this week when it was accused of circulating emails in a bid to bury poor test results (see page 15), had already come to grief.

The single paragraph of coverage they managed to secure in the Sunday papers was enough to alert the National Association of Head Teachers'

general secretary that his pet hate - the extended schools project - was on the rise.

Mick Brookes was on national radio denouncing the scheme which he believes will turn schools into a "baby-sitting service", and it was still more than 24 hours before the official announcement. And it got worse. Helped by the happy co-incidence of the Archbishop of Canterbury's concern over growing pressure on schoolchildren, The Times' page one story raged: "Alarm over pupils facing a 50-hour week".

The alarmed "campaigners" turned out to be the Campaign for Real Education's Nick Seaton, a cheerleader for traditional schooling who is constantly at the ready to stand up a story for the right-wing press. And, as Ms Hughes, the children's minister, pointed out in a letter on Tuesday, although the 3,000 schools might be open 50 hours a week, their activities were optional and pupils would not be expected to stay for all that time.

"While children might come in early for the breakfast club, they might not stay for the homework group after class," she explained.

But the damage was already done. The same day, the Daily Mail chipped in its bit by pointing out that the research, trumpeted by the Government as proof that extended status led to school performance improvements, actually portrayed a much more mixed picture.

"When we look across the case-study schools as a whole, we can find examples of schools where average attainment levels have declined during the initiative as well as those where they have improved," the study warned.

"Further analysis should clarify this situation, but at this point, it would be misguided to extrapolate from isolated success stories to more general optimistic conclusions."

True, the Mail's assertion that a "dawn-to dusk school day could hit exam results" was disingenuous. As one of the researchers, Alan Dyson, told the paper: "It looks as though any decline in average attainment is nothing to do with the extended nature of the school but at this stage you cannot be certain."

But Ms Hughes's assertion that the research showed that extended schools "can expect to see a positive impact on their academic results" also seemed a little misleading.

Wednesday's Telegraph provided one bright spot for the minister as Rachel Johnson described extended schools as a bonus for families who could not afford childcare. They deserved, she said, "a few limp cheers from those who live in the real world."

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