Mandating 10 hour opening times for school buildings*

*NB. Yes, buildings. Not teachers. Not headteachers. Not pupils.

Today I’m blogging without data, or even much evidence. We have had a few interesting commentaries from education bloggers on longer school days (here and here), but the twitter debate fell quickly into criticisms about impacts on family life, which need to be challenged. I believe the provision of non-compulsory extended schools is an essential reform to support families – as families by definition will include women who want, or need to work. And it is still women who are overwhelmingly expected to meet their children at the gates of schools well before the working day is over.

Schools are public institutions if they take tax-payers money (yes, even church schools and academies). Their buildings are ideal places for children to spend time, whether that time is spent learning, playing, doing extra-curricular activities, eating, and yes Tom… even just baby-sitting. Instead of the patchwork of finding childcare, after-school clubs, ad-hoc play dates and other activities to fill the rest of the day, let’s start using these expensive buildings to serve the modern needs of families.

I would like the government to mandate that publicly funded schools must open their buildings from at least 8am to 6pm, without restrictions on number of places available in their extended day. Schools can make reasonable charges to either children or providers for extended day activities, and there should be no requirement on either pupils or teachers to attend.

My reason why is the reality of combining children with work and a career.

Before I had children I had been prepared for the fact that the pre-school years would screw up my career a bit, but assumed that once children went to school, childcare would become more straightforward. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Until my child is five I can (pay of course) to send her to a nursery where I can pick and choose for her day to start at 8am, 9am, 12 noon or 12:45pm and for her day to end at 12 noon, 12:45pm, 3:45pm or 6pm. Whilst there she takes music lessons with a specialist, learns to swim, spends many hours playing inside and outside, is introduced to letters and numbers, and so on. She loves it and I love to work while she is there.

I could keep her in this institution after the age of five because the nursery happens to be attached to a private school that has been forced to extend its working day to meet the desire and/or the needs of my generation of women who mostly want to work. But unfortunately my ideological beliefs and desire for her to be educated in her local community make this impossible.

I don’t live in a part of the world where state schools generally open for 10 hours a day or where there is a pool of affordable labour looking for work from 3pm-6pm each day. So, I am resigned to spending many afternoons each week standing at the school gate, driving my children to extra-curricular clubs, sitting reading my twitter feed while the club is running, driving them home and preparing their tea while they watch TV. Yes, it is great for families to spend quality time together, but this doesn’t feel like good quality time to me. If it was so great, I suspect it would be shared more evenly across the sexes. I believe it would be better for my child and for my career if schools were required to house a wide variety of fee-charging after-school clubs (youth clubs, sports, individual and collective music activities, ballet and gym, homework support, maths catch-up, one-to-one tutoring, arts and crafts, drama, etc…) for families who wanted to use this additional care. We could, as taxpayers and citizens, choose to subsidise this provision for some groups of children or even require attendance for others, but this would be controversial and step far beyond straightforward support for working parents.

I enjoyed Paul Kirby’s blog this week on lengthening the school day, but I don’t think he successfully made the case for longer mandatory opening hours for all children. Let’s look at Kirby’s arguments and some of the problems in the evidence, even where he has cited it. He says:

  • “The evidence on the impact of classroom hours on attainment is strong”, citing Kipp schools in the US. But unless we are to invite Kipp to come and run our schools, the correct evidence base is really rather weak
  • “It wouldn’t cost any money because we can redeploy Teaching Assistants to run additional activities without detriment to children they currently support”. This is not a view of the evidence that Peter Blatchford, the academic who is most quoted in this area, would subscribe to.
  • “Teachers currently work shorter hours than other workers so should be required to work a normal day”. This is a particularly ill informed prejudice. Teachers would work shorter hours, if children needed no pastoral care, lessons needed no planning and books needed no marking (see here). I worked far longer hours as a teacher than I did as an investment banker.
  • (And even if we had the money, we cannot substantially increase the size of the teacher workforce without comprising quality of new recruits.)

Postscript: Since I wrote this blogpost the government has published an interesting research report.

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