Why a four-day working week would benefit teachers

A shorter week would improve teaching, make staff healthier and reduce schools’ carbon footprint, says Gordon Cairns

Gordon Cairns

Why schools should introduce a four-day working week

The political parties have offered the electorate an abundance of wonderful things if they vote for them next month, but no promise has generated more disbelief than Labour's idea of reducing the working week to four days while maintaining the same salary: one columnist simply described it as “stupid”.

Yet, it could actually improve productivity and the health of employees – while reducing our carbon footprint. It has been trialled in workplaces across the world, with some companies cutting the working week by 20 per cent.

Although private businesses may be more flexible than schools, the barriers to a shorter week should not be insurmountable. After all, if everyone worked for four days there would be no childcare issues for parents.

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Teachers are given a set of classes to teach from August (in Scotland) to June with no real evidence that young people need that time to maximise their learning potential. While Malcolm Gladwell may have popularised the notion that we need 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert, this idea now appears to have been debunked by the very psychologist who carried out the original research. The truth is we don't know how many hours a young person needs to study a subject to become proficient in it.

A four-day working week in schools?

However, it has become practical that they should spend 50 minutes on each subject three or four days a week; this is to suit the timetable, rather than their learning potential.

In the classroom, I couldn't honestly guess what percentage of each period is undertaken teaching and learning rather than chatting and settling. I know that the pace of work increases as the end of term or as exams approach, with no obvious reduction in understanding from the class.

Perhaps a reduction in teaching time promotes more efficient methods of instruction, or perhaps schoolwork could be covered by having longer days. It should be noted that in the 1970s, during the three-day weeks caused by the energy crisis, productivity only fell by 6 per cent.

Local authorities would welcome the financial implications of running the school estate for one day less every week. Some schools in England have already dropped to a four-and-a-half day week to cope with financial pressures and teacher shortages.

There would also be an environmental benefit in getting all school-related traffic off the road for one day a week. Another positive would be less burnout in teaching and support staff. This, in its turn, would benefit education authorities: well-rested teachers would be healthier and able to work until they're older, with fewer days lost to stress-related illnesses.

I should add that I write all this as someone who already enjoys working a four-day week in school. It's just a pity I'm not paid for five. 

Gordon Cairns is a teacher of English who works in Scotland

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Gordon Cairns

Gordon Cairns is a forest school and English teacher who works in Scotland

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