Michael Gove's latest proposal to extend the school day and reduce the summer holiday to four weeks has much that is commendable. The structure of a school term has never really been challenged and it is right to raise the question; as Gove remarks, 'the school term and the school day were designed at a time when we had an agricultural economy'. It's a progressive reform; poorer children stand to gain from a shorter summer holiday, where they typically fall behind their more advantaged peers who are shunted between summer camps and music lessons. Poorer parents who can least afford childcare will benefit from the additional flexibility. And whilst some of Gove's detractors have interpreted the proposal as some kind of sinister plan to institutionalise children, replacing childish innocence with ruthless state-enforced aspiration...I just don't buy it. They seem to have a positively Blyton-esque vision of childhood where children spend their summers singing around campfires and skipping through fields. The reality is that for all but the most fortunate children, the long summer is tedious, filled with TV reruns and arguments with parents, with little to do and not enough money to do it.
But in spite of its merits, the proposal just doesn't add up. Firstly there is little evidence that extending contact hours improves aggregate performance; most studies show a very small correlation between contact hours and attainment, with multiple outliers. The OECD shows that the European countries with the longest 'instruction hours' tend to score lower than England; conversely the Nordic countries that Gove so admires all have shorter instruction hours than in England.
Another of Gove's favorite examples of successful education systems is Singapore. Gove stated: 'School days are longer, school holidays are shorter. The expectation is that to succeed, hard work is at the heart of everything.' In 2013, Singaporean pupils will spend 40 weeks of the year in school compared to the standard 39 weeks in the UK. Governmental guidelines suggest that secondary school pupils should spend six hours per day in school including breaks. Many Singaporean children actually spend a relatively short amount of time in school and this is partly driven by necessity; many state schools are so over-subscribed that they divide their school day into a morning and an afternoon session where pupils attend one or the other. Singaporean schools also tend to have large class sizes, often with more than 30 pupils. And yet they perform near the top of international educational attainment tables. What is their secret?
As Gove indicates in the latter part of his claim, the greatest difference between the Singaporean and English educational systems is the ruthless expectation placed upon Singaporean pupils to work hard and achieve good results. I spent my primary school years in the Singapore state system, and my peers and I were streamed into seven sets at the age of six. Lower achievers were regularly chastised by teachers and parents for 'failing'. The intense pressure came from our parents, our teachers and our peers rather than from the length of the school day, and my classmates would regularly go home and study alone until late at night. Teachers and parents demanded absolute obedience from children. There was an emphasis on core subjects and rote learning, and although this is developing quickly, Singaporean society still places greater value on the sciences than the creative arts. The Department for Education loves to cite East Asian educational models but there are so many differences that anyone attempting to emulate their educational successes must surely ask the question: 'But will it work here?'
The second argument against the proposal is that it would mean a significant increase in teaching workloads. Teachers currently spend 195 days per year in the classroom. Suppose we add on an extra hour a day of contact time, not including time for lesson preparation and marking, and an additional two weeks in the summer. That's over 250 additional hours per teacher per year; where is the money coming from?
Thirdly, Gove's proposals demonstrate confusion about the primary function of a school and blur the line between teaching and childcare. If Gove wants teaching to be viewed as an elite and competitive option for top graduates, then teachers need more not less time to prepare lessons, and not to become childminders after their teaching day is over.
The problem here is that childcare provision in the UK is insufficient and overly expensive. Gove rightly acknowledges that a 9am - 3.30pm school day is a hindrance for working parents. A Guardian analysis in January based on OECD data estimated that the average cost of full-time childcare in the UK was 41% of the average wage or 27% of the average family income, compared to OECD averages of 18% and 12% respectively. This is a real barrier for women in particular who still overwhelmingly bear the brunt of childcare. The Office for National Statistics' data shows that in the third quarter of 2012, 44% of women worked part-time, compared to 13% of men. Whilst some women may make a positive choice to work part-time, many others have no choice, barred from working full-time because of the need to fit in childcare duties but unable to afford to step out of the workforce. Part-time work may one day be a flexible, fulfilling alternative to full-time work, but at the moment it is disproportionately concentrated in low-skill sectors, often compelling women to take on a job they are over-qualified for. In many higher skilled and more competitive sectors, it is a barrier to progression and a significant contributor to the lack of women at the top of their professions.
This is both an economic and a social issue. A report by Booz & Company, published in The Economist, suggests that if female employment increased to match male employment, UK GDP would increase by 5%. The government needs to focus on creating high-quality affordable childcare within communities, that support working families and provide a sense of purpose for the most disadvantaged children, allowing them to participate in the same sports and creative pursuits that their middle-class peers enjoy after school. It is not the responsibility of teachers to support parents' working arrangements. They have plenty of challenges of their own.