Jonathan Simons: Sums add up over impact of a longer school day

THERE is something in the air around extending the school day. Both the Conservatives and Labour have tentatively suggested such a move would help relieve pressure on hard working parents. As part of a new paper exploring how to put such a policy in place, Policy Exchange explored the issue.

We found that between a third and a half of state schools already offer a longer day (and 70 to 80 per cent of private schools), one good example being the David Young Community Academy in Leeds. But extending time isn’t an automatic win. In fact, international evidence shows no necessary correlation between length of the day, and performance on international league tables.

This makes it vital to have a well-designed and planned extended day, to maximise the chances of any potential benefits. We think there are three broad questions which policymakers need to answer to get to this right.

Firstly, what is the purpose of extending the day? Is it to provide low-cost childcare, boost academic scores, or increase pupils’ social and cultural horizons? Or is it to tackle wider social harms such as reducing crime and teenage pregnancy?

Our view is that the greatest gains are likely to come in improving broad educational outcomes when thinking about “the whole child” – including growing their cultural and social capital.

And although there will be a benefit to parents in terms of working flexibility and childcare costs – and politicians are right to focus in this area, as part of efforts to support families – the evidence suggests that the biggest gap in current provision is more for pre-school children, who obviously would not benefit as much from school-based childcare.

The second question is who participates in such a scheme? There are practical grounds to worry about the physical and organisational capacity of some primary schools to cope with running large extra activities.

But overall, we believe that any school that wants to run an extended day – and some primaries do so very well – should be able to, but not compelled to do so.

Polling that we commissioned as part of our research shows that parents and staff both think that such a scheme should also be voluntary for pupils at whatever phase. Heads, however, worry that such a scheme (with high fixed costs and variable income) would cause considerable financial turbulence.

Moreover, there is a potential equity issue, whereby the children who might benefit most access these voluntary schemes the least.

Given that, we suggest that if government wants to fund an expansion of a longer day, it does so via an extended day premium, distributed on a per pupil basis, which schools can opt into receiving, on the condition that they then run a longer day which is mandatory for pupils within that school.

Such a decision, with associated funding, would be analogous to opting in to academy status.

Thirdly, what activities should take place, and who should staff them? Unsurprisingly, but by no means unreasonably, teachers are unwilling to work extra hours with no extra recompense. But around two-thirds of them (especially younger staff) would be prepared to consider it as part of a renegotiated contract with a higher salary.

Primary schools are more keen on bringing in external staff, whereas secondaries prefer using more teachers. The evidence suggests that high quality activities led by teachers are more effective than those led by teaching assistants, volunteers, or outside help.

Politicians advocating a longer school day need to be clear that a significant expansion will require extra money.

While existing schools in England have managed to find additional funding for staff salaries (normally a five to 10 per cent stipend) and other costs through efficiencies, later adopters are not necessarily going to be able to replicate this. And although schools were funded to run extended days before 2010, this money will have since been reallocated within the school.

The size of the additional costs will obviously be dependent on the number of schools opting in, and the extent of extra funding given per school, but might 
range from around £500m at the lowest end to potentially close to £7bn.

One way of reducing costs is for schools to act in clusters. But the evidence from extended schools is pretty clear that when schools cluster, access to safe, cheap and reliable transport is absolutely essential to making access to services a reality.

Providing access to a longer school day is by no means a panacea and schools should consider carefully the needs of their specific community.

But a scheme which offers additional funding for a carefully designed longer day, combined with more efficient use of time within schools, offers potential for benefits to pupils – and their parents.

Jonathan Simons is head of education at leading think tank Policy Exchange.