Last reviewed 8 February 2022

For many years there have been discussions about reforming the education system, particularly with respect to the length of the school day. Former head teacher Michael Evans looks at the long-running discussion regarding the merits of extending the school day and the current pilot in some Welsh schools.

Parliamentary discussion

As long ago as February 2014, during a debate in the House of Commons, Michael Gove, who was then Secretary of State for Education in the UK Coalition Government, said that he would like to see state schools offer a school day that is 9 or even 10 hours long. This, he said, would enable schools to provide character building, extra-curricular activities and homework sessions.

Dominic Raab, a junior backbencher who had been one of the new intake of MPs at the previous General Election in 2010, agreed that these plans would ease the pressure on teachers and help working parents. He urged the secretary of state “not to allow the vested interests of the unions to block the delivery of these plans”.

Proposals for change

Later in 2014 the Education Select Committee published a report in favour of longer school days. As a result, the DfE advocated this as an “innovative reform” that could help to raise standards, but the idea was quietly shelved.

Further research led to another report in 2017, where staff, pupils and parents were asked what they thought about an extended timetable. Although there was some favourable response, there was no great enthusiasm.

Staff and school leader reactions were predominately negative, and parents were concerned that activities during an extended school day would have a compulsory element that children would see as being more like class time, rather than being fun. They were also concerned about their children being overworked, especially if homework was still given.

Pupils were concerned that an addition to the school day would mean having to give up other after-school activities. They were also concerned about effects on their safety and getting home if the school day was extended. Once again, the idea was shelved.

The Welsh initiative

The question of extending the school day is obviously controversial and it continues to surface from time to time. Over the years there have been numerous articles and speeches in favour or against the extension of the school day, but now the devolved Welsh Government has shown some action.

Always been keen to assert Welsh independence from the rest of the UK, last November First Minister Mark Drakeford announced a need for a radical shift in an academic year that dated back to the time when Wales was largely agricultural.

Mr Drakeford told BBC Wales Live that the way we now live our lives, and how people are employed, plus the way parents need to manage the competing demands of life, requires a look at the way that the school year and the school day are organised in Wales.

In a first step towards this aim, the Welsh Government is funding a £2 million ten-week pilot, where 1800 children at 13 primary and secondary schools, and one college, will spend an extra hour in school each day, for a total of ten weeks.

The trial is part of the Welsh Government’s co-operation agreement with Plaid Cymru and is focused on supporting disadvantaged pupils, and schools that have been affected during the pandemic.

The additional funding is intended to allow schools to outsource the running of additional sessions, where there is a need, or to adapt existing activities such as after-school clubs. The intention is that the extra hours will be filled with art, music, sport, and core academic sessions, with local needs being taken into consideration. Head teachers will ultimately be given the final decision on what changes will be implemented.

Political support

Laura Anne Jones, Conservative Shadow Minister of Education, confirmed that in principle, Welsh Conservatives welcome the announcement to explore reforms to the school day, pointing out that such a plan would help disadvantaged pupils and assist children as they recover from severe disruption to their education during the past two years.

She went on to say that if the pilot was a success, it was vital for ministers to take parents, teachers, and pupils with them if any subsequent changes were to be made. A thorough impact assessment would also be needed to fully understand the potential knock-on effects that this would have on different areas of Welsh society, from teacher workload to childcare.

As well as tweaking the school calendar, she said, the Labour Government must retain focus on education itself and ensure that fundamental priorities are met. These will include significant improvements to reading, and an increase in funding of education in order to give our young people the best start in life.

Cool comments from NAHT Cymru

Laura Doel, director of NAHT Cymru, observed that the government had provided no evidence to support the extension of the school day. She suggested that existing evidence shows that keeping learners in school for longer does not increase a child’s capacity to learn. The focus, she said, should be on providing quality teaching and learning during school hours.

Rather than concentrating on educational benefit, she said, the focus of the Welsh government has been to tailor the school day to fit in with family life and working patterns. She was concerned that priority was being given to a reform agenda without thinking about its impact on schools.

If this pilot was part of a Welsh Government plan to support working families with a national childcare offer, it should come out and say so. She pointed out that schools are not childcare providers, and that school leaders, teachers, and support staff should not be expected to take on additional work and responsibility to do this.

Enthusiasm from the Welsh Education Minister

Jeremy Miles, Welsh Education Minister, said that research has shown that young people can gain in confidence and wellbeing from this approach, and disadvantaged learners can particularly benefit. The trial, he said, is a great opportunity to gather further evidence on how we use and structure time at school and how we might evolve in the future.

The minister also confirmed that in the coming months discussions will be taking place with young people and their families, education staff, and people beyond the sector, such as tourism and public services, to seek their views on potentially reforming school term dates.

Financial questions

There are obvious cost implications to be considered in extending the school day. After Michael Gove made his House of Commons speech in 2013, Channel 4 News did a “FactCheck” where it analysed the data. It found that although there was a small positive correlation between increasing school hours and achievement, particularly for pupils at risk of failing, it was not clear whether any improvements would be worth the money that would need to be spent.

The devolved Welsh Government considers it to be well worth spending £2 million to pilot a 10-week school day extension programme. The outcome will be looked at with great interest, not just in the Principality, but across the UK.

Summary

  • In a 2014 House of Commons debate, the Secretary of State for education said that he would like to see a school day extended to nine or ten hours.

  • Later the same year the Education Select Committee was in favour of an extension, but this was shelved.

  • A further report in 2017 asked parents, school staff and pupils about a possible extension to the day and after a generally negative response, again the idea was shelved.

  • The devolved Welsh Government have now decided to introduce a 10-week pilot programme to extend the school day by one hour.

  • NAHT Cymru is not enthusiastic, claiming that the Welsh plans are a social initiative rather than being educationally focused.

  • Consideration needs to be given as to whether the educational benefits of extending the school day justify the additional cost.