Investment and reform should level up our co-curricular offer

30 Jun 2020, 15:18

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A developed co-curricular should be an entitlement in every school. A few rule changes could make an extra into a game changer, writes Benjamin Cox

There is a risk that the academic and social consequences of Covid could leave permanent scars on a generation of children. Those who start life with least have the most to lose. As we emerge from lockdown, schools have a critical role to play. We need to support families and use this crisis to redouble our efforts in closing the gap between rich and poor. The curriculum matters, but we also need a relentless focus on building resilience and educating the whole child.

By investing in what we do inside schools – yet outside of the classroom – we can imbue all young people with the social dexterity they require to assemble more rewarding futures.

At its most effective, co-curricular activity is central to a school’s offer and occupies up to ten compulsory hours a week. It can be a carefully engineered environment, developing a child’s appetite for challenge, commitment to goals, emotional regulation and, critically, confidence in their own abilities. On sports fields, under footlights, in music rooms and across debating chambers, self-belief is taught, stretched and patiently baked in.

In Britain, this offer is not evenly distributed. There is much we can do.

Government should start building many more pitches, pools, tracks, trails, theatres and courts

Firstly, with the government’s welcome announcement of emergency funding for additional tutoring, an extended school day may be necessary. Is there a case to make a 5pm finish permanent? Most schools already provide optional after-school clubs. Some schools run this activity in the middle of the day, make it compulsory and follow it with final lessons. This would be transformative for disadvantaged students and would allow children and working parents to arrive home together.

Secondly, we need to find a solution for this summer and for every summer to come. We know the holidays create a drag on the progress of the poorest children. In 1880, when education became compulsory, most children either worked on factory floors or farms. Help was needed with the harvest. That is why we start the school year in September and still have the hangover of the long summer break. Roll forward 140 years and the UK’s future lies in digital and high-value industries. Yet the academic calendar still fits an era before electricity. With annual leave for most sectors standing at around five weeks, many children are left unsupervised for two months a year. Why not use this autumn to catch up on the lost summer term and start the school year in January? Sync the academic and calendar years, shorten the summer holiday and fill it with co-curricular camps.

The funding challenges are facilities and staffing. To get the country out of this deep recession, the government has committed to investing heavily in infrastructure projects. Working through local authorities, it should start building many more pitches, pools, tracks, trails, theatres and courts. Schools would have exclusive use during the day, with wider community access available the rest of the time. Peter Hughes, CEO of The Mossbourne Federation insists such facilities would make all the difference for inner-city schools. He is adamant: “If you build it, they will come.”

The extended school day will need more teachers. We should increase teaching budgets by 10-15% and recruit the additional staff required to spread the load. Teachers of any subject would be hired based on what they could deliver outside as well as inside the classroom. Increased co-curricular contributions should be rewarded with lighter teaching timetables. Afternoons not spent directing the play or coaching a team could be allocated to marking and lesson prep. Smaller class sizes. No more taking work home.

For too long, we have seen co-curricular as a “nice to have” rather than the game-changer that it actually is. Examples of best-practice demonstrate what can be achieved with imagination and investment. Now, more than ever, schools need to be fun and welcoming safe havens. A broad and thoughtful co-curricular offer will be key to restoring and enriching the fortunes of this and future generations. Many young people are currently lost at sea. Now is the time to lift all boats on what will be a slow-rising economic tide.

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