Whispers from Westminster

8th April 2016 at 01:00
Extending school hours is a drawn-out affair

One of the smaller announcements in the Budget was that one in four secondary schools will be able to bid for funds to run a longer school day. Unlike some apparent Treasury giveaways that seem to vanish, like a mirage, when you stare hard enough at them, this seems quite generous – the Treasury will allocate £285 million a year from the sugar tax to pay for 850 secondaries to extend their day by five hours a week.

This means an average grant of £335,000 per successful school – well within the cost envelope estimated by the Education Endowment Foundation of around £3,500 per pupil, and much bigger in cash terms for most schools than the pupil-premium grant.

The pre-Budget spin about this money being to abolish the “Victorian 3.30 closing time” is a recurring theme. Polling that we did at Policy Exchange in 2014 suggested that between one-third and a half of state schools already offered extended hours (and around three-quarters of private schools).

Extending the school day is a longstanding preoccupation of all parties – Liz Truss looked at this as childcare minister, NiMo’s announcement was a parental “right to request” childcare in school, and Labour had a “primary childcare guarantee” in its manifesto in 2015, which would have legislated to have all primaries open 8-6. It ticks all the right political boxes – academic stretch, more extra-curricular activities and support for working parents.

But part of our work was to understand the policy goal. A childcare-focussed scheme ought to be targeted at primaries, not secondaries. Can a few hours tackle academic standards and extra-curricular breadth at secondary? Almost certainly not.

Deciding what you want to achieve frames how you, as a government, want schools to deliver it. In an atmosphere of unsustainable workloads, it’s pretty clear that extra hours will (almost) never be delivered by teachers.

That means schools working with third parties to come and run activities – great if your school is in North London, say, but less feasible in north Norfolk. The other thing to watch is surface compliance. Labour budgeted £2.2 billion between 2003 and 2011 on “extended schools”, which required schools to offer a fixed set of activities from ages 8-6. Following huge effort, 98 per cent of schools qualified by 2010. Yet only one-third offered the activities on-site. The rest did so in clusters.

Fewer than half of the clusters were within walking distance. The offer wasn’t reliable enough for parents or children. Beneath the Treasury largesse, it’s things like hall space, insurance and school buses that make policy fly or sink.

Jonathan Simons is a former head of education in the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit under Gordon Brown and David Cameron

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