Early birds don't just catch the worm, it seems. They also get home in time to catch Countdown. In recent years, many schools have moved towards a shorter, "compressed" day featuring an early start, short lunchtime and few afternoon lessons. Given that teachers say most pupils work best in the morning, it sounds a great idea. The Department for Education and Skills recommends a weekly minimum of 21 hours' teaching at primary level, rising to 24 by key stage 4, but there are no statutory requirements governing the timings of the school day. So individual schools can organise their hours as they please. But timetabling the perfect day isn't easy. Does an early finish give teachers time to relax, or does it just make the working day more stressful? And are shorter days compatible with the Government's push for extended schools?
The compressed day is sometimes referred to as the "continental day". But this is a bit of a misnomer. A closer look at trends in Western Europe reveals that an early start and finish are far from the norm, with some countries choosing a longer day with a lunch break of up to two hours. Many French state schools have a four-and-a-half day week, with lessons for older pupils running until 4.30pm. Even in Germany, where school has traditionally lasted from 8am until around 1pm, there are moves to extend the day, mainly because of parents' working patterns.
Early to bed, early to rise
So why are a significant number of UK schools cutting back on post-lunch lessons? The most common reason given is to improve the quality of learning. The old adage about early rising being the key to wisdom still holds sway with most teachers, whose experience tells them pupils study more effectively and are better behaved in the morning. As the day wears on, students tend to lose focus, and afternoon lessons are often significantly less productive. An early finish also provides an uninterrupted period to concentrate on lesson planning and makes it easier to organise extra-curricular activities and carry out site maintenance and cleaning. So it seems logical to make an early start and get the bulk of academic activity over with before lunch.
But not everyone is convinced. Many children don't go early to bed, so are not at their most alert at 8am. And some psychologists believe the quiet, co-operative behaviour more often seen in the morning has little to do with peak mental capacity. Dr Philip Jones, senior educational psychologist at Kirklees Metropolitan Council, says livelier pupils have livelier minds.
"There's a lot of evidence that, for most complex intellectual activity, learning is optimised in the later hours of the day."
Others are more in tune with teachers' observations. Chartered educational psychologist John Acklaw believes pupils' increased concentration span in the morning makes it easier to reinforce learning, which, in turn, encourages lesson content to enter pupils' long-term memory.
Trying it for size
Burnage high school in Manchester has been piloting a compressed day since September. Lessons begin at 8am and continue until 1.45pm, with two 15-minute breaks. Lunch is available at the end of school and pupils must stay on site until 2.15pm, when they can go home or take part in after-school clubs and activities. "We're an inner-city boys' comprehensive with no playground and a field that's often waterlogged," says headteacher Ian Fenn. "Lack of space to burn off energy at lunchtime led to frustrations that would spill over into the hour-long lesson in the afternoon. This represented 20 per cent of total teaching time, so we had to take action."
The restructured day, introduced after consultation with staff, pupils and parents, is proving a success. The school's behaviour log shows that the number of disruptive incidents has been reduced by half. And despite initial concerns that some pupils would fail to get up in time for the early start, attendance and punctuality have improved marginally.
"Pupils are the biggest supporters of the new day," says Mr Fenn. "They love having time to do other things after school but they know that if they don't toe the line we'll change back." And the new hours are popular with staff, who find the increased time for preparation and marking after school means they don't have to take work home. Worries that teaching for such a long stretch with only two short breaks might take its toll have proved unfounded, with no increase in staff sick leave.
Dinner time dilemmas
Although few schools consider such a radical change as finishing at lunchtime, a growing number shorten the day by cutting the lunch break to as little as 30 minutes. Many schools notice an upsurge in poor behaviour in the second half of the lunch break. Behaviour management issues are compounded by the problem of providing adequate supervision; in many schools the job falls to senior staff whose contracts are not subject to the 1,265 hours agreement. Supervision difficulties often mean older pupils are allowed off site, which doesn't always please local residents, and can lead to punctuality problems at the start of afternoon school. When all these factors are taken into account, it seems a good idea to get pupils fed and back into lessons in as short a time as possible.
Not so fast...
Senior staff who undertake lunch supervision, and those with pastoral responsibilities, often view such changes as successful as they cut the number of behaviour incidents they have to deal with. But classroom teachers with heavy timetables can be less enthusiastic. Many admit to being ground down by the relentless pace, and miss the opportunity to recharge their batteries during a relaxed midday break. Lunchtime also provides an informal get-together in which teachers can share ideas and offer each other support. Although an early finish sounds nice, many teachers need time to wind down after a hectic day so, in effect, no work time is gained. The lunchtime club can be another casualty, with some pupils reluctant to participate after school and teachers too drained to run activities.
And it's not all good news as far as pupil behaviour goes. With breaks so short, it's difficult to keep pupils who have misbehaved behind at the end of a lesson. There's also a temptation for staff to ignore bad behaviour in the corridors. "You know that if you stop to deal with it you won't get to eat your lunch or go to the loo so you pretend not to notice," says one teacher. And staff are less available to offer help outside lessons.
"Pupils feel as if they're on a conveyor belt and our sole aim is to get them educated and out of the door as quickly as possible," says another teacher whose school has shortened its day. "It undermines our caring ethos."
A nutritional nightmare?
Joe Harvey, director of the Health Education Trust, says short lunchtimes do nothing for civilised eating habits. "They encourage pupils to eat on the hoof, and social interaction over meals and table manners suffer." He also believes they work against healthy eating initiatives. "When schools introduce more nutritious foods, pupils need time to consider them. If they're being hurried through the canteen they tend to head straight for what they had yesterday as they know where it is and what it costs," says Mr Harvey.
There is also the temptation for schools to deal with the rush by installing vending machines selling crisps, sweets and fizzy drinks.
Burnage has refused to go down this route, instead providing healthy snacks in the canteen and increasing the number of tills to speed the serving process. But Mr Fenn agrees that teenage boys wolfing down their food in the short time available is not always a pretty sight and says one of the breaks will probably need to be extended.
Jennette Higgs, nutritionist and project director with the Health Education Trust, also has concerns about early starts. A survey carried out by the Schools Health Education Unit in 2001 found that 31 per cent of pupils ate no breakfast. Ms Higgs points out, that research shows going without food in the morning has an adverse effect on children's academic performance.
She fears that earlier starts will lead to more pupils skipping breakfast, while a later lunch break will mean an longer stretch without eating.
"Schools need to consider breakfast provision," she says. "It doesn't have to be cooked; simple, cold snacks such as rolls, fruit and yoghurts are convenient and healthier. One option for early starting schools might be to allow pupils to snack during morning registration."
A moveable feast
Another problem with cutting lunchtimes is that some schools lack the space and facilities to feed a large number of pupils in a short time. Queens Park community school in the London borough of Brent has overcome this by introducing two shortened lunch breaks. While older pupils stick to a traditional slot at 1.10pm, children in Years 7 and 8 sit down for lunch two hours earlier. Michael Hulme, headteacher, says it helps break up the day, and the early lunch has proved popular - possibly related to the reluctance of many children to eat a proper breakfast. They also enjoy having their own slot so they don't have to compete in the queues with older pupils. Lunchtime clubs take place in the second break, with pupils who wish to participate allowed to attend the first sitting.
Thinking it through
Changes to the school day affect teachers, pupils, parents, bus companies and even local traders relying on lunchtime custom. An early finish, particularly in primary schools, may compound the childcare problems of working parents, and the onus will be on the school to find ways of funding supervised after-school activities. There may also be concerns about pupils being let out early only to loiter on the streets and possibly make a nuisance of themselves - an issue that may need to be discussed with the local police schools liaison officer. Government plans to develop extended schools, which will provide childcare to 6pm, as well as other services, should eventually go some way towards addressing the problem.
Arrangements for transporting pupils to and from school can also be a stumbling block, particularly in rural areas. Contracts between transport companies and the education authority may be difficult and expensive to change. And in towns, even a small change to the school day can wreak havoc with local transport systems.
Getting the go-ahead
If a school is thinking of changing the structure of the day, governors must consult with the LEA, head and staff - including union representatives - and issue a proposal to be discussed at a meeting with parents. Changes to start and finish times can be implemented only at the start of a school year, and at least three months' notice must be given.
Mr Fenn, at Burnage high, says a thorough consultation process is vital, as is constant reappraisal. "There will be drawbacks with any arrangement and schools need to adapt and find ways around problems. The most important thing is to find the best fit for your particular school, and to ensure that it's of sustained benefit to the pupils."
* Regulations regarding the changing of school session time can be found at www.legislation.hmso.gov.uksisi199919992733.htm.
* The Health Education Trust is a charity to promote the development of health education for young people. Its website contains a wide range of news and information on health issues in schools. www.healthedtrust.co.uk.
Main text: Caroline Roberts
Photographs: RSPB; Sam Friedrich
Additional research: Sarah Jenkins
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