Time to ring changes

17th September 2004 at 01:00
The traditional school system is inadequate to meet the needs of today's 'flexitime' society, writes Susan Lewis.

Over the past two decades, we have seen a number of important changes to education and training in Wales. Because of much hard work and effort we have seen considerable progress.

Standards have improved but we still have inequalities in achievement. It is time to consider some major changes to our educational system. We need to take a radical look at the systems we have in place and consider fundamental and wide-ranging changes to school structures and purposes.

Our current school year is based around arrangements made in the 1800s when children worked on the land at key points of the year.

More and more families work in flexible employment and their lifestyles are such that they want to take holidays the year round.

Most schools start around 9am and finish around 3.30pm having had common breaks totalling around 90 minutes. There is a pattern of bells, timetables and mass movement that is choreographed - some might say controlled - as in no other walk of life. Also, much of this expensive public provision of school buildings and resources is closed or under-used late afternoons, evenings and weekends, often for more than 150 days a year.

By contrast, in other areas of life today, we have an increasingly 24-hour lifestyle with flexible working times and broader opening hours. We can buy almost anything at any time of day or night and yet we have limited access to significant public educational resources for learning.

This represents a vast amount of waste in terms of publicly-funded learning resources.

There have been some significant developments in the wider use of schools such as breakfast clubs and out-of-hours learning, and some local authorities are experimenting with a six-term year, but we must be more creative.

Our schools should be open for longer hours, with opportunities for learners and staff to work at different times of the day and year, and we should review the activities and services on offer to young people and their families before, during and after school.

Our schools also need to be much more at the heart of communities as centres for learning. A multi-agency approach would provide a network of community-focused education centres and services across an authority that addresses 21st century needs.

With more flexible working arrangements in schools, and a re-appraisal of staffing structures, I believe there is scope for greater diversity, using the skills of a wide range of people for the benefit of learners. If schools open for longer hours and we extend the curriculum and services offered, we will need to employ a more diverse, flexible workforce.

Teachers, of course, would continue to play a central and vital part. They would benefit by being able to work more flexibly. Young graduates in shortage areas may find these arrangements more attractive, thereby helping to tackle problem areas of recruitment and retention.

We need also to consider creative ways of ensuring schools are well led.

Small schools working together as federations is proving a good strategy for securing effective leadership in areas that are finding it difficult to recruit headteachers. But in a community school with learners of all ages, would it still be necessary to have a head taking the role of senior manager?

There are also exciting opportunities in approaches such as distance learning. Who would have predicted the success of the Open University when it began 30 years ago? Could we use this way of learning to help us plan and deliver more varied, better-quality learning experiences, particularly for older pupils?

With new technologies, a cluster of schools could develop areas of expertise, share teaching and help communities to keep their identity, and make the best use of resources in a sustainable way.

Without radical change in the past we would not have achieved free education for all, Welsh-medium education or a basic entitlement for all.

If we refuse to consider the need for change we are in danger of ignoring what is already going on. We need to be ambitious in our desire for developing learning, take the best and use our accumulated knowledge, experience, talents and energy to help inform our plans for a better future.

Susan Lewis is chief inspector of education and training in Wales

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