Conference season isn't known for generating laughs. But Michael Gove's speech at the Association of Teachers and Lecturers union conference proposing Saturday openings for schools drew wry laughter from the delegates.
"Children who come from homes where parents don't have the resources to provide additional stretch and cultural experiences - there are benefits in having those children in the learning environment, in school, for longer," he said, before adding that this would need the "enthusiastic support of teachers" to work.
Cue the laughter.
Mr Gove wasn't clear on whether these Saturday schools would teach the normal curriculum or provide extra-curricular tutoring in sport or music, for example.
He cited the Knowledge is Power Programme (KIPP) in the US, in which teachers make themselves available to pupils out of hours via their mobile phones, and schools are open from early morning to provide support for children who may not receive any at home.
Regardless of what is taught, working on Saturdays would represent a significant change to the profession. Teachers are currently contracted to work 1,265 hours over 195 days a year - 190 for pupil contact and five allocated for in-service training.
Time in lieu is supposed to be set aside for any additional responsibilities. Teachers are already more likely to do overtime than any other profession, according to a Trades Union Congress analysis of an Office for National Statistics survey. More than half of teachers work unpaid overtime according to the TUC analysis and more than one in five works an average of 19 extra hours a week, more than lawyers or health service managers.
Nansi Ellis, head of education policy at the ATL, says the union would not support the idea of teachers working on Saturdays. "Obviously (extra- curricular activities) are things that can be beneficial," she says. "But whether it's the place of teachers to be providing them is the concern."
Many private schools already open at the weekend for extra-curricular activities and some academies have opted to open on Saturday mornings. For National Challenge schools under threat of closure, opening at weekends gives staff extra time to try to improve pupil attainment.
Staff at National Challenge schools can volunteer to work on Saturday mornings and are paid up to pound;100 a session, but unions warn that it is not sustainable.
"There are issues for teachers who want to have a family life, and it compromises a work-life balance," says Ms Ellis.
Saturday opening is not just a Conservative idea. Alan Johnson, when he was education secretary, proposed Saturday classes to help both struggling children and gifted and talented pupils, although the suggestion was dropped when it became clear the cash would not be forthcoming. Headteachers who have opened their schools on Saturdays, such as the Gateway Academy in Tilbury, Essex, claim the additional enrichment activities have substantial benefits for the pupils.
Although heads could not force teachers to work on Saturdays, it could become part of the school culture. For this reason, the proposal was met with cynicism by teachers on the TES online forums.
"Oh yes, that lovely kind of volunteering which severely damages your career prospects . if you don't step forward," writes one teacher.
Teachers may be obliged to work on Saturdays in the future, but they cannot be forced to work over the contracted number of hours. Heads should negotiate how these are allocated through the week.
What are your rights?
- You are entitled to time off during the week to make up for working on Saturdays.
- Make a note of the hours you work, and inform your head if you are doing more than you are contracted to do each week.