After repeated calls to extend the school day, Gavin Williamson has admitted knowing little about it. Teacher Tapp has the data, says Laura McInerney, but it may not help his cause
How many schools finish before 3.30pm? That feels like the sort of question that an education secretary intent on criticising schools for the length of their teaching day ought to be able to answer. And yet, when Gavin Williamson was asked in a recent Commons debate, he had to admit that he didn’t know.
“Historically there has been very little information, actually, sort of published, on the actual sort of school day. As I am sure you are aware, it has not been, actually, part of something that has been looked at as part of an accountability measure by Ofsted.”
Gav’s right. One of the school system quirks is that despite spending about £30 billion on it per year, the government often doesn’t know the most basic of things about it. For example, what time do schools end? And, crucially, what time do they start?
When we began Teacher Tapp in 2017, these were the sorts of questions we sought to answer. It took less than 24 hours after polling 8,000 teachers for a definitive answer. At present, one in 20 primary schools finish lessons before 3pm. The number is slightly higher than in the past because so many primary schools are running staggered end-times so that pupils aren’t crowding out at the same time and passing the virus between bubbles.
For secondary schools, the figure is closer to one in five, with 18 per cent closing before 3pm. Those in the most deprived areas were more likely to shutter early, with 29 per cent closing before 3pm, which feels like grist to Williamson’s mill.
However, it’s essential to also look at opening times. Schools in more impoverished areas were also much more likely to open before 8.30am.
In truth we do have quite a lot of information about the school day
They’re also much more likely to have shorter lunch hours. In 2019, a UCL-Nuffield study comparing break times over 20 years found that children were now chomping their sarnies at mega-speed. One-third of schools now have less than 45 minutes for lunchtime, and eight per cent take less than 30 minutes.
Why are schools hammering through the day? A couple of factors are intertwined. Funding is a huge part of the picture. Paying for lunchtime supervisors cuts into schools’ dwindling budgets. Keeping lunch lean means teachers and leaders can use some of their directed hours to monitor students rather than paying for other people to do it.
A second factor is that in primary schools, the introduction of universal free meals increased the number of children needing to be fed by kitchens. To increase throughput, many schools shifted to split lunch breaks, in which children eat their meals in shorter shifts, to accommodate. Covid restrictions around bubbles further increased the number of schools using split lunches, driving lunchtimes even shorter.
Finally, there’s the simple matter of behaviour management. When schools study major infractions (such as fights) they often find that they happen once students have been left to their own devices for long periods. For example, football games can get ever more fraught as breaktime wears on! Cutting back on downtime is thought to reduce such behaviours and lessen the chance for bullying.
Williamson should also take into account the fact that lessons ending does not mean that schools close altogether. In ordinary non-pandemic conditions, most schools run extra-curricular activities after school, with 50 per cent of teachers taking part in these across the year. Homework clubs, musical activities, sports teams. After-school clubs are a vital part of the extended curriculum.
In truth we do have quite a lot of information about the school day thanks to the Teacher Tappers. We would encourage any of you who haven’t yet joined to sign up to help us keep information like this flowing to ministers. (Download from your phone’s app store.)
As for Williamson, hopefully he now knows that the school day, actually, isn’t as big a concern as needing the money and people to run it.