With its carousel of lockdowns, self-isolation and partial school closures, there can be no doubt that Covid-19 has constrained the educational experiences of all young people over the past two years. More concerning perhaps is the extent to which the pandemic has intensified the already entrenched learning gaps between more and less affluent young people, bringing into sharp relief the multiple inequities at the heart of our society, and hence at the heart of our communities and schools.
Questions of how to support the recovery of lost learning remain crucial, and particularly so for our most marginalised learners. One possible solution that has fuelled much debate in educational circles is that of extending the school day. While increasing the time that young people spend learning seems an obvious remedy to make up for the learning time they have lost, this solution is not as novel as it might seem. In fact, it already exists in many schools and communities across the world, often referred to as extended school provision, or Out-of-School Time (OST) provision.
OST provision in the UK is commonly led by adults, located in school premises or other local professionally led spaces such as youth centres, and provides academic support or enrichment through a range of cultural, sports and leisure activities. However, despite the range of opportunities typically on offer, evidence suggests that the young people who would most benefit from OST provision (likely the same young people who would most benefit from an extended school day) are the least likely to participate actively and engage meaningfully.
With my co-author Kirstin Kerr, we carried out an 18-month qualitative case study of the neighbourhood assets that young people use to support their educational outcomes, which revealed one crucial obstacle. Our participants, all aged between 11 and 15, report that as OST provision tends to be designed by professional adults with a professional remit, it fails to sufficiently take account of young people’s day-to-day lives, interests, identities and aspirations.
In this regard, OST has a tendency to replicate the disconnect some young people experience in relation to school. There is therefore every reason to surmise that simply lengthening the school day would provoke a similar sense of alienation, fatigue and disinterest in young people already disengaged from formal schooling.
There is some broader evidence to suggest that OST provision can reduce inequalities in access to learning opportunities between more and less affluent young people. OST provision that has managed to reduce disengagement might offer an interesting blueprint to those wedded to the idea of extending the school day as a means of catching up on lost learning (and preventing the further educational damage the Omicron variant presents).
But reflecting upon young people’s perspectives on OST provision as captured in our case study, we would call on educational leaders to think about the challenge differently. What if, rather than simply extending an already overloaded school day, educational leaders took the opportunity to consider new school designs that might distribute time, space and resource differently – in ways that are fully inclusive of young people’s needs, identities and interests, and how these have evolved as a result of the pandemic?
To do this, our research suggests that young people must be involved in these discussions as active agents of change and co-producers of knowledge. This would mean them having a central role in critically interrogating what is understood by the notions of high-quality learning and valuable learning outcomes, and indeed how these are facilitated.
However, the first step is for educators, academics and policymakers alike to tone down the rhetoric of lost learning, and to model a more optimistic vision for our young people’s future.
Simply adding hours to the school day is unlikely to motivate anyone, and could fail to capitalise on the lessons of the pandemic about what learning looks like when taken to include what happens within and beyond the classroom.