Let's call it a day on 9 'til 3.30 clock-watching

26th November 2010 at 00:00

It is time for teachers in Wales to rethink the school day. For decades the timetable has had a clear beginning, with pupils arriving before lessons start at 9am, and a clear ending, with children going home at 3.30pm. Of course, there is homework after that, and teachers are used to marking and preparing until late, but in essence that has been the basic school day. But it does not have to stay like that. Why stick to a timetable inherited from 19th-century public schools? If teenagers learn better between 10am and 5pm - as research has suggested - why not let them do so?

However, the key reason I would like to see fresh thinking about the school day is that it could potentially change the work schools do with their communities. In particular, it could lead to an extension of the services they offer beyond the 9am to 3.30pm day, and beyond the standard school term and year.

A redefined day would allow teachers and communities to work in collaborative ways to offer support in out-of-school-hours clubs and activities. These could help to address the learning needs of all young people, including those with additional needs and gifted children, who may not always reach their potential within class time. Closer working between teachers and communities could also help to ensure that children and families are supported through illness, bereavements and traumas.

Greater services and support could be offered to marginalised groups, from asylum seekers, refugees and itinerant migrant workers to Traveller children and their families, as well as looked-after children. Collaboration could even bring in pupils who are outside the mainstream school system: the home-schooled and the permanently excluded.

Some school leaders already work like this, though there is a way to go yet. It is not just about a few impressive offerings for pupils and their families before and after school - a breakfast club here, a homework club there. It should be about rethinking entirely what it means for a school to be community-focused.

As part of a national organisation that seeks innovative ways to support lifelong learning, my colleagues and I at ContinYou Cymru have seen some great examples of the benefits that community involvement can bring to education and learning. In particular, we have seen this through the community-focused schools programme, which we support. But our experience shows that these benefits cannot be left to chance. For them to work, it must be integral to a school's purpose that it is community-focused.

A crucial opportunity is the school effectiveness framework (SEF), which could bring about a new relationship between schools and communities. We believe it has enormous potential to drive Wales's efforts to raise standards in schools and we fully support its aims to encourage more collaboration. Its slogan is "building effective learning communities together" and one of its six main elements is "working with others", which includes the directive that schools should be "community-focused".

However, we do not believe this goes anywhere near far enough. Community focus should not just be an element of an element - it needs to be an utterly fundamental part of a school's work. We must use this opportunity to rethink what it means to be community-focused, alongside how the school day should work. Schools' "work with others" must really meet the needs of their communities, which actually extend beyond those of their particular pupils and families.

It requires us to think about how we can ensure school and community leaders have the skills required, and to explore the potentially touchy area of how funding and resources can be pooled between schools and other local agencies and groups.

It involves working collaboratively with public agencies and the voluntary sector on some very tricky issues, including how to address child poverty. And it is not enough for schools to be eager and community-focused - communities need to be school- or learning-focused too.

We must do this, because learning happens everywhere; in many guises, with many people involved, at many times.

Confining it to classrooms, or to the old-fashioned school day, limits the opportunities to fully meet young people's needs - and those of adults.

Pam Boyd is executive director of ContinYou Cymru.

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