Do we need longer school days or more flexible ones?

Two posts in two days is a rarity for me at the moment, but I’ve had the opportunity to do some reading this weekend and I’m a little riled up.

The first piece of reading was Lucy Clark’s Beautiful Failures, which I speak about in my last post. The second, which popped up on my Facebook feed on Sunday morning, I’m not so impressed by.

Yesterday the Adelaide Advertiser ran an article online titled “Two in three parents want the school day extended, SA Association of State School Organisations survey finds.”

‘Well, is that so?’ I thought to myself and clicked the link  to see what kind of quality reporting I might find. This is the Advertiser, remember…

So, the article basically explains that the SA Association of State School Organisations ran this survey of approximately 700 people(quite a small sample size given the many thousands of school age children in SA), 94 per cent of whom were parents, and found that a staggering 66 per cent of them wanted longer school days. There were three primary reasons for this:

  1. relieve financial pressure on families
  2. reduce the need for homework
  3. provide greater access to activities such as art, music, and sport.

Let’s unpack this a little.

Firstly, relieving financial pressure. The article states that the number of respondents who said that extending the school day would relieve financial pressure is the same as the number who place their child in Out of School Hours Care. At its crudest level, this equates to them wanting the school to provide a cheaper childminding option. What is being ignored here is the fact that the teachers who are then required (not volunteering, required) to provide the additional supervision would also come at a cost, leading to increased school fees. Not to mention that most teachers’ hourly wage would be more than that of an OSHC supervisor, so would it really be a cheaper option?

Next, reduce the need for homework. Now, I am very open to a logical discussion about the pros and cons of homework. I believe that too often it gets set for the sake of it. However, that aside, the argument that a longer school day will reduce the need for homework and therefore reduce stress makes no sense at all. The students would be spending more time at school, doing more work. A great deal of research suggests that homework is not beneficial for students so I think what is required here is not more hours at school, further exhausting already tired children and teachers (have you met a class of kindergarteners or 14 year olds at 3pm?), but an evidence-based discussion between schools and parents about the value of homework and how it is set.

The third reason in favour of longer school days was to provide greater access to activities such as art, music and sport. A valid issue that the article does raise is that a crowded curriculum and a fixation on literacy and numeracy to improve NAPLAN results means that time dedicated to the pursuit of such subjects is being squeezed out. These are subjects that encourage communication and creativity and that research suggests helps to shape our minds and make them more flexible. Lucy Clark, in Beautiful Failures, also refers to research that shows that music education is linked to positive well-being in students. Now, if this is a reason for a longer school day, or public schools offering more services, I might be able to be swayed but it would take some work because I do not believe that it can be made mandatory for all students and all staff.

So how by long did the parents who responded to this survey want the school day to be extended? Supposedly more than half wanted eight hour days, while 15 per cent wanted nine to ten hour days. Nine to ten! This, in itself, is obscene given the number of students who are already suffering anxiety and burnout. According to Beyond Blue, one in six young Australians currently experiences an anxiety condition and their greatest worries are stress and school, in that order. But sure, let’s keep them there longer…

Now, what must be noted is that the article is not one hundred per cent clear about what it means by a “longer school day.” So far I have interpreted it to be a longer instructional day, and indeed, that’s how the first part of the article and the parents’ reasoning makes it seem. It’s not until later that SAASSO’s director suggests that no-one is calling for a longer instructional day (questionable). But one of the survey’s findings was that 75 per cent of respondents wanted secondary schools to offer night classes. Now we are talking not necessarily about a longer school day for the students, but flexibility in hours. There seems to be more evidence to support this approach than the longer approach. Merrylands East Public School, in Sydney’s west has altered its school day to run from 8am to 1.15pm to ensure that students are learning at the optimum time for brain function. There is no less instructional time, but the results have been positive. There is also research that suggests most teenagers (who studies show require more sleep) would benefit from a later start to the school day. Schools such as Templestowe College in Melbourne have responded to this and operate three schedules including a 10.30am start (with a later finish). Of course logistically this would be a challenge (good luck to whoever is involved in timetabling that) but the flexibility could also be built in for the staff. Simply creating a longer school day is rigid and does not take into account the needs of many for flexibility.

As a teacher and a human being, I cannot support a mandatory extension of the school day as some parts of this article seem to be suggesting is needed. I do not believe there is any benefit in that for the well-being of students and teachers. What I could get around is a rethinking of how we structure school and approach learning to provide greater flexibility, in time, in environment and in teaching and learning style.

And on that note. Rant over for the weekend.

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