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London schoolsAre we seeing an end to the traditional structure of the school day?

By Kate Hilpern

Is the model of traditional school hours outdated and no longer fit for purpose? It’s a question that has come to the fore as a top performing London state school has decided to adopt a four-and-a-half day week, sending teachers and children home just after midday on Fridays. Meanwhile, schools we visit at the other end of the spectrum are keeping children in school longer than ever, sometimes from 8am to 6pm Monday to Friday, in addition to Saturday school.

Forest Gate Community School, a secondary school in Newham, said it introduced the four-and-a-half day week to create a happier workforce, boost productivity and tackle teacher shortages. Simon Elliott, executive head, said, ‘We are confident that the introduction of a shorter timetable will not impact on our capacity to continue to achieve among the very best results in the country. On the contrary, we believe happier, less stressed staff who feel valued will help create the type of learning environment to improve productivity.’

In other schools, according to a Guardian article this weekend, hours are being reduced at the start and the end of the day to save money. In Birmingham, many primary pupils are being sent home at lunchtime on Fridays; and pupils at one Kent grammar school are coming in late one morning.

In America, some schools have gone further still, opting for a four-day week. In the state of Colorado, where the four-day school week is most popular, students spend the same number of annual hours in school but with longer days. The motivation for the changes is both financial and more family time, as well as giving teachers more lesson preparation time.

Other schools are moving away from traditional school hours for different reasons, including to better suit teenage brains. At Hampton Court House in East Mosely, for instance, lessons in sixth form start at 1.30pm and finish at 7pm. Only last month there was a parliamentary debate on whether more UK schools should start no earlier than 10am as ‘teenagers are too tired’ following an online petition of more than 180,000 signatures. The last few years has seen a growing number of studies showing that teenagers’ circadian rhythms are out of sync with school start times and that delaying them can help combat sleep deprivation and improve performance in the classroom.

After schools in Seattle made the change to the start time in 2016, students got significantly more sleep (with the same bedtime) and the study also showed a 4.5 per cent increase in grades, as well as better punctuality and attendance (although the researchers couldn’t prove the link). Meanwhile, a study in North Tyneside found that starting the school day an hour later improved grades in basic subjects by a significant 19 per cent.

Conversely, other schools seem to keep children as long as is humanly possible, sometimes for six days a week, albeit usually with longer school holidays. By European standards, our school day is already long and there is no evidence that more hours at school correlates with better educational outcomes. But longer school hours, argue advocates of this model, mean children have a richer, fuller curriculum so they get to do better in the core subjects like maths and literacy as well as having time to do things like languages, which are currently being squeezed out in many schools. The seemingly punishing schedule, they say, keeps young minds occupied and supervised and fits around parents’ working hours too – and anyway, say these ‘long hours’ schools, children aren’t always kept in classrooms for all this time, with many spending the end of the day, and Saturday afternoons, doing sport and other activities. ‘It seems crazy to kick them out onto the streets in the middle of the afternoon,’ one mother, an advocate of this system, wrote on the issue in the Telegraph, although a parent recently told us the kids in her long-hours school were ‘flipping exhausted by the holidays’.

Of course, some children spend long hours at school out of choice, attending after school and homework clubs – but these are different because they are not compulsory and therefore carry less pressure than an obligatory 60-hour week.

It’s also important to consider break and lunchtimes as part of the bigger picture. Last week, I was at a school that has opted for ‘squeezing’ the school day so that children are finished by 2.45pm – but with just a 20-minute lunch break, many parents feel there simply isn’t enough downtime, with children flagging in afternoon lessons. Another school I was also at last week opted for relatively long hours but with an hour-and-a-quarter for lunch.

So what model does your school offer? And do you think the amount of time your offspring are at school feels about right, or is it too little or too much? And where does childcare fit in? Birmingham Yardley MP Jess Phillips has invited the prime minister to collect her son from school after being told it could close early on Fridays. We’d love to hear from you.

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