Boris Johnson's half-baked plan to extend school hours doesn't pass common sense test: Jayne Dowle

For thousands of pupils across Yorkshire, today marks the start of the last week of summer term.

Boris Johnson and Gavin Williamson during a visit to Pimlico Primary school in South West London in 2018: Picture: Toby Melville/PA Wire
Boris Johnson and Gavin Williamson during a visit to Pimlico Primary school in South West London in 2018: Picture: Toby Melville/PA Wire

At least six long weeks of proper holiday beckon. Not self-isolation. Not home-schooling. Just empty days with nothing much on the calendar, because these are Covid times after all and a week in a caravan at Skeggy is probably now changing hands for about three grand. Run free and enjoy them while you can, I say.

If the Prime Minister gets his way, come September the school day will be extended. However, I’m more than a little puzzled by his new insistence that what children, young people and teachers really need are more hours in the classroom.

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From where I’m standing, as a parent and school governor, all I see are teachers already absolutely exhausted to the point of breakdown, many considering leaving the profession for good. I see huge challenges in recruitment going forward, particularly in attracting the brightest and best to deprived areas in our region.

And I see school budgets squeezed and supply chains constricted. I keep hearing that schools have run out of lateral flow tests.

What about dealing with that first, Prime Minister?

Speaking to Robert Halfon MP, the chair of the Commons Education Select Committee last week, Mr Johnson said that lengthening the school day is “the right thing to do”.

He’s been mumbling about this for weeks now, but why did he appear to confirm it in such an unequivocal way when yet again, he clearly lacks even a remote grasp of the detail?

“Question is how you do it,” he opined. “What sorts of activities, enrichment; is it academic? What’s the mixture? As you rightly say, we’re doing a proper review of all of that to get the evidence that we want.”

Is it just me whose heart sinks when I hear the words ‘proper review” coming from just about anyone in government these days? You simply know it’s code for, “we really haven’t got a clue about how we’re going to make this policy stick, so we’re going to bumble about for a few weeks, then come up with some hare-brained ideas that no-one will like”.

For goodness sake, please don’t add this spurious ‘review’ to Gavin Williamson’s to-do list for the summer. Surely the Education Secretary has enough on already, with A Level and GSCE results in August. Like all parents, I sincerely hope that there is an infallible plan in place to ensure that we do not repeat last summer’s fiasco.

And then Mr Williamson has a load of forward planning to do. He will be working out whether he’s definitely going to scrap school bubbles and if so, how he’s going to cope with headteachers aghast that their gymnasiums will be turned into field hospitals should on-site lateral flow tests become mandatory.

And making the school day longer without any clear of how it’s going to work? It’s a kick in the teeth to all those parents whose children have been sent home from school recently because a contact in their bubble or year-group has tested positive for Covid. Does Mr Johnson think that missing school for weeks on end can be somehow made up by staying late for some more weeks from September onwards?

If so, then he clearly has no idea about child development and the attention span, stamina and concentration abilities of most people under the age of 18.

Whether teenager or toddler, there is only so long that a young person can engage. Former education recovery chief, Sir Kevan Collins, who resigned after telling ministers that their catch-up schooling plans were not ambitious enough, recommended spending £15bn on education recovery and extending the school day by 30 minutes. This is definitely long enough.

Then again, what do I know? I’m just a parent of two teenagers with an intense interest in their education for the last 16 years or so. Mr Williamson, in response, announced initial spending of just £1.4bn, of which £1bn will be spent on tutoring. No mention of extending the school day here, or a review, or extra hockey practice or even conversational ancient Greek which is perhaps the sort of thing Mr Johnson has in mind for our offspring.

If you think I sound worried, my concerns are piffling compared to what teachers are thinking. Teachers’ unions are already warning that these so-called extension plans could seriously backfire. Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “We know that quality of teaching is more important than quantity.

“It will be vital that these proposals are properly resourced and don’t become an unsustainable burden on schools, leaders and teachers. And there will be many questions about exactly what the expectation will be over the content of longer school days.”

Many questions indeed, and Parliament about to bunk off on its own summer recess with Mr Williamson left in charge of the shop. I only hope he’s licking his pencil and preparing to tackle that list.

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