Three better ideas than extending the school day

3 Jul 2021, 5:00

If the DfE keep floating the idea of lengthening the school day for lack of better ones, we’ve got three more promising prospects for them, say two Chartered College researchers

The idea of extending the school day to help students ‘catch up’ on ‘lost’ learning seems to be endlessly teased by the government in the media. If that’s because of a lack of other ideas, then the Chartered College of Teaching exists to serve.

In fact, we have already stated that the research findings on this are much more nuanced than the idea’s proponents make out. The OECD’s analysis of 2018 PISA data states that “time spent in school is, in fact, much less important than how the available time is spent”.  

While some studies suggest additional teaching hours benefit student progress, others show that the first two hours of teaching have the greatest effect, after which the impact drops off. PISA evidence also shows that remedial lessons have no effect, on average, on student attainment.

So, concerned about the feasibility and impact of ‘catch-up’ lessons during an extended school day, the Chartered College looked into alternative strategies to support student progress. Three key suggestions arose from the international evidence.  

First, a quiet room for homework and study after school hours was the most frequently observed strategy for after-school support in PISA 2018 data. Even after accounting for per-capita GDP, students with this access performed better on average in reading, maths and science. So access to quiet study space at school could be especially beneficial to those who can’t access such a space at home.  

While evidence on the impact of background noise on concentration is complex, it suggests that intelligible speech and background music with lyrics may impact reading comprehension particularly negatively and that students with additional learning needs such as hearing impairments, EAL or those who receive learning support may be particularly negatively affected by background noise.  

Second, peer tutoring  was also associated with higher student performance in the latest PISA data. Extensive research shows an overall positive effect on attainment equivalent to five months of additional progress.  

Decisions based on winning votes in the short term risk making things worse

Some evidence suggests that gains are greatest for children with SEND and those who are low-attaining, and that peer tutoring programmes are most effective when they take place during school hours. Same-age tutoring in programmes of less than eight weeks and sessions of less than 30 minutes is optimal, and to make it even more effective, it should supplement rather than replace regular teaching.

Third and finally, a report from the Social Mobility Commission states that extracurricular activities result in a range of positive outcomes for young people, including improved attendance, confidence and social skills.  

According to an OECD report, countries whose schools offer a larger amount of creative extracurricular activities show greater equity in student performance. In addition, students enrolled at schools providing such activities perform better in reading, on average.  

Some research also suggests that extracurricular activities can have a positive impact on academic achievement. But opportunities to take part in such activities are unequally distributed, so providing all students with equal access to them promises a range of benefits.

The DfE are prone to citing the EEF review on extending school time, yet it categorises this as a low-impact strategy based on only moderate evidence. Moreover, it recommends that any such increase should be supported by both parents and staff.  

Recovering from the pandemic is a national effort. Children will need parents, teachers, school leaders and policymakers to work together to see them through, and strategies that are grounded in clear evidence will maximise our chances of success.  

But even the three suggestions above come with provisos and caveats. Context is key, and implementation is complex and multi-faceted.  

That’s why, among all the stakeholders, teachers’ professional experience and judgment must not be overlooked. Our schools are skilled at weighing up the costs and benefits of interventions to staff, students and families.

We can provide them with alternatives for consideration. But if decisions are taken out of their hands and made on the basis of winning votes in the short term rather than winning the recovery in the long term, then we risk making things worse for students and schools who have already faced significant challenges.


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