A question of class

Jim Knight

Jim Knight on why it’s time to lengthen the learning day not the school day

Michael Gove managed to gather plenty of coverage for himself with his speech last Thursday at The Spectator education conference. As ever, the Education Secretary asks the right questions but comes up with the wrong answers.

He advocated a lengthening of the school day to keep up with Asian competitors, which is not newsworthy in itself given that his Labour opposite number Stephen Twigg called for same over a year ago. Typically however, Gove has maximised the coverage. He is a much better politician than he is an education minister, and he is a better journalist than he is a politician. This time he managed to get more coverage because he antagonised the teacher unions.  

Of course it is true that lengthening the learning day is a good idea, as long as learning is engaging pupils and teaching quality is sustained. But it does raise a couple of problems.

First is the one raised by the teaching unions. Like everyone else, teachers are having to work longer hours.  They are at the heart of better learning and already being asked more for the same money, so lengthening the school day is likely to involve increasing the staffing budget. I would be surprised if Gove is willing to give schools more money to fund this growth.

Secondly, Gove’s reforms are narrowing the curriculum and incentivising schools to focus on fewer, more academic subjects. This is at the expense of making learning more engaging. If arguing for a longer school day is to make room for sport, the arts, design and technology, and other essential parts of a modern curriculum, then that would be a welcome acknowledgment of their importance.

Gove is not reported as making this argument; his main reason is to keep up with our Asian competitors, and he often cites Singapore.

But he should keep up to date with Singapore. He references their academic rigour and focus, just as they and their neighbours are urgently adding creativity into the school experience. Rather than rote learning, our Asian competitors are moving towards children learning through making things, by using technology and developing creative and collaborative skills.  

Why are they doing this?

The world is changing rapidly due to globalisation and technological change. The skills needed for individuals and our economy to thrive have also changed. No longer is it about just absorbing information separated by subject, and being able to regurgitate that in a logical argument. What employers now need are knowledgeable people who are confident communicators, creative lateral thinkers and good collaborators.

In his Spectator speech, Gove is right to point out that our school terms are organised around the agrarian calendar but he forgets our curriculum and pedagogy is in turn organised around the industrial needs of a hundred years ago. This compartmentalised, clock-on-clock-off timetable is part of what is boring for many learners and needs to be broken up if we are to compete in the future.

I agree that there is something in lengthening the day, but that it is unaffordable and it risks extended dull anachronistic schooling. There is however, an alternative.

If we see the importance of technology in enabling more learning, then we could make progress. There is one hard pressed official in Gove’s department trying to keep up with technology enabled learning as part of her job. That is not good enough. Technology needs top level strategic thinking.

How could it help?

If the Government were to finish off Labour’s well received Home Access scheme, we could ensure all school age children are online at home. The learning day could then be lengthened by a wholesale roll out of ‘Blended Learning’ – of online and off-line activity. This is now common place across the US and many of our other international competitors.

Blended Learning allows teachers to do more creative and constructive activity. For example, ‘flipped’ learning is increasingly popular with teachers, who are freed up to innovate. In this model, homework is done before class activity, so that learners watch videos of their teachers giving them instruction about a topic. They can pause and rewind the lesson. They can communicate with classmates about their instruction, using social networking, and take quizzes at the end. They then arrive in class prepped up to do a quick recap before doing a more interesting activity in groups to embed the learning.

This is just one example of using technology to extend learning without the expense of extending the school day. The results can be very impressive, as teachers find as much as 50% of class time is freed up for activity and to give individual attention to those that are struggling.

Gove is right to ask whether we can extend the learning day. That would make us more competitive internationally. But the answer is not to try to drive more productivity out of overstretched demoralised teachers. It is to redesign education for this century and train teachers to use technology to make them more effective for every child at home as well as at school.

Lord Jim Knight of Weymouth is a member of Labour’s Shadow Frontbench in the Lords and a former Schools Minster

Published 21 April 2013

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