This week we have heard from the Secretary of State that he believes that the current school year and school day is no longer fit for purpose and that we should be considering making some radical changes to this to improve standards. We hear that countries overseas have been doing this for some time yet there is no research I have read this week that tells me their performance is directly due to more hours of teaching and learning. The quality of the experience should always trump the quantity of the experience but it does not mean this is not a subject of serious debate.
In the Cabot Learning Federation we have been having this discussion for some time now to try and see if there are better models we could develop to give out 6000 students an even better experience.
When I was appointed Principal of John Cabot CTC in 2003-4, the school operated a 5 term year where all terms were 8 weeks irrespective of where the traditional school calendar fell. There were great benefits for learning in this in that the “rhythm” of the learning remained constant throughout the year. My view was that the model created some challenges such as staff being on 2 weeks holiday in the final 2 weeks before exams started! We also had the issue of being out of synch with other local schools which made it challenging for families with children in different school across the primary and CTC age range. Nevertheless it feels like the right time to take a fresh look at this.
Our current national model requires children to be in school for 190 days and staff for 195. There are some national and local variances to this but in the main this seems to be fair overall statement. 190 days for every child has created a system where we still have a significant proportion of young people who are not successful and find it difficult to engage. There is little evidence from the research I have read that tells me that making the school year 240 days for example will make any difference. This would be heightened I suspect if all that happens is that the same 190 days are taught in the same way with the same curriculum for a further 50 days by teachers even more tired and children even more dis-engaged. I think the clue to this sits with Sir Michael Barber’s view that there is a new learning formula to be thought about where we move the constant and variable axis around.
Our education system keeps time as the constant feature. 190 days with roughly a 25-30 hour week for every child. The outcome is a variable set of standards. If we were to say that time become the variable so that we think about core learning and then extended learning for parts of the day and year, we could be in a better position to say that standards and outcomes can then be fixed. For example, this time of year, every evening, some weekends and certainly in my experience every Easter and May half term break, those children in need of exam support and preparation come into school or stay later and the result is their GCSE performance often goes through the roof. This is not sustainable in the long run but it has been in the CLF one of the key strategies in closing the gap for our most vulnerable students.
So what if we took a fresh look at the year and the way that teacher contracts reflected a new professionalism for their development and personal long term growth. What if the school year never actually ended and that students were required to attend learning sessions for a new minimum period of time, perhaps an additional 10-20-30 days according to need, which included new types of learning around enrichment, skill enhancement, work placements and internships as well as their core experience. What if teachers were contracted to work a minimum of 195 days but rather than fragment a system with performance related bonuses we simply paid our best teachers and leaders more to spend more time with children. In return, they can take their holidays within a timing of their choosing that coincides with the plans of their school and the structure created by the leadership team. Perhaps in that way teachers would take a real break rather than taking long weekends at half term. Perhaps children and families would then be able to turn to the school for support all the year round. Perhaps schools will then develop a business model to provide community support, holiday child activities that enable parents to work and become over time self sustaining out of hours educational providers.
Whilst this is radical and not as tightly thought as it will become over the next few months, what I am clear about is the idea that children who get “satisfactory” experiences already will not get anything more from a longer year if it simply stays as more of the same. Learning beyond the classroom at its very best impacts on learning in the classroom and this should be our agenda for debate and not simply more of the same!