Extending the school day is an interesting talking point – but that’s it for now

By Geoff Barton
General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders

The idea of an extended school day is back in the news again thanks to a report from Children’s Commissioner Dame Rachel de Souza. You can read what she is suggesting here.

It’s an old chestnut of course, having been discussed, in one form or another, at various points in time for many years, and having most recently featured as a centrepiece in Kevan Collins' education recovery plans – before the plan was shot down by the Treasury, prompting Sir Kevan’s rightfully furious resignation as Education Recovery Commissioner.

The evidence shows that there is merit in the idea. The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) says it can add an extra three months’ progress over the course of a year. And the Education Policy Institute think tank concluded that there is strong evidence in favour of extending the school day if done in the right way.

But it’s an idea which begs a lot of questions. How would it be funded, organised and resourced; who would staff it; what would you actually do during the extended time; how would rural schools reconcile it with the fact that pupils are likely to have longer journey times; and, perhaps most importantly, would parents actually want it?

The EEF answers some of those questions. It says that programmes which provide enrichment activities in addition to academic support are more likely to have an impact on attainment. And it adds that any extension of school time should be supported by both parents and staff in order for it to be successful.

Meanwhile, the EPI notes that the goals of extra-curricular and enrichment activities encompass pupil wellbeing, happiness and mental health, and this is one reason why the EPI has recommended any extra school time be used for both academic and enrichment activities.

It is also worth saying that another potential benefit is that an extended school day with a programme of sports and arts would offer disadvantaged children the same sort of opportunities that are available to other youngsters whose families can afford the cost of paid-for clubs and courses. So, there is a strong social mobility argument too.

However, that in itself begs another question about whether or not it would need to be made compulsory to ensure children don’t miss out – and one suspects that many parents might rail against this notion.

Of course, many schools already run breakfast clubs and after-school activities. But here we are probably talking about something which is a standardised national entitlement. That’s not an easy thing to achieve when it has to work at scale across a system of 8.3 million children and 22,000 schools. 

Labour has taken a step in this direction with its policy of fully funded breakfast clubs in every primary school in England. 

But where is the government on this matter having kicked Kevan Collins’ recommendation not so much into the long grass but over a cliff?

The dispiriting answer is that the fragments of the idea resurfaced in one of the more lamentable parts of the government’s Schools White Paper in the form of an expectation that all schools should deliver a week of at least 32.5 hours by September 2023. 

As TES reported, roughly 60% of schools already hit the metric, while 40% have a slightly shorter week – but only by a few minutes and generally because lunch and breaktimes are shorter. 

So, it is a kind of homeopathic version of Sir Kevan Collins’ proposal, watered down to the point that the substance of the idea can no longer be detected. In short, completely and utterly pointless.

Which leads us to an obvious conclusion. There is no appetite in the present government to pursue an ambitious agenda on this or indeed any education matter. An extended school day is an interesting talking point, but that’s it for now.

Geoff Barton is ASCL General Secretary.
Posted: 14/10/2022 09:28:35