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Ministers are discussing plans to make teaching time longer from the new term. These so-called “bolt-on” sessions are likely to take place at the beginning and end of the school day, after warnings that two million children have done less than an hour of work a day during lockdown.
An open letter signed by 1,500 paediatricians called on Boris Johnson to make the reopening of schools a “priority” – or “risk scarring the life chances of a generation of young people”.
But is making the school day longer the right solution? We asked the experts.
A key issue is that longer school days may not suit all children, says Liat Hughes Joshi, an author and parenting expert. “We do desperately need to find a way for children to catch up – especially the disadvantaged who don’t have access to the tech needed to home school, or a suitable environment to work in,” she tells HuffPost UK.
“But the problem is finding a solution that suits all. There are plenty of young children who cope fine with longer days, in wrap-around care, and there are some who would find it too exhausting.”
A cautious approach
Child psychologist Amanda Gummer, of Dr Gummer’s Good Play Guide, says while some children have thrived during lockdown – with individual attention and successful home-learning – many have not. Schools are in a great position to help children catch up, she believes, but it needs to be done carefully.
“Children have missed more than just curriculum-based education during lockdown,” she says. “Opportunities to develop skills such as sharing and turn-taking, negotiation and teamwork have all been reduced, and the lack of outdoor exercise will have had an impact on some children’s physical fitness.”
So, she says, if longer school days do come in, it’s important staff understand young children’s concentration spans and energy levels – then plan the day accordingly. This could mean having several short breaks throughout the day to keep children energised, or balancing practical work with written work. It may also mean switching between group tasks and individual working.
I’d urge the decision makers to look at play-based initiatives and family activities.Child psychologist Amanda Gummer
Dr Gummer suggests extracurricular activities – such as art, culture, and creative clubs – could also play a great role in schools to enrich classroom learning for kids and keep their attention for longer.
“Helping children develop holistically is, in my opinion, more important than catching up on a term’s worth of curriculum learning, especially in the primary years," she adds. "I’d urge the decision makers to look at play-based initiatives and family activities to really support those most severely impacted by the school closures."
Quality not quantity
But some experts aren’t convinced a longer day is the most productive solution for children. Developmental cognitive psychologist and early years specialist Dr David Whitbread has his concerns.
“We know that after a full day at school, under the current timetable, children go home mentally tired and in need of a break, so I would question the value of simply adding further lessons onto the existing school day,” he says.
The key to enhancing the speed of children’s learning, he believes, isn’t to simply increase the time they are being taught, but to enhance the quality of their learning experience. “If the government is planning to require teachers and children to just do more, under the same conditions, then I would not predict a massively successful outcome,” he says.
“In fact, if anything, this could just make matters worse.”
Dr Whitbread says rather than making promises to extend the school day, the government should set up an advisory board – like SAGE – made up of leading educational researchers, teacher trainers, headteachers and teachers.
“We need to support the educational needs of all children, with particular regard for those children from disadvantaged backgrounds,” he says. “The present situation, and the measures to deal with it in the most productive ways going forward, is complex and needs to be guided by the science and the education profession – and not by politicians.”
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