Monday, 7 February 2011

Improve Results - Cut School Hours!

If there's one good thing to come out of the so-called 'Age of Austerity' we're entering, it's that it makes us bring some new ideas to the table. Facing significant funding cuts, North Ayrshire council is, apparently, considering switching to a four-day school week, and putting the school starting age back a year, to six (kids start school in England and Scotland aged five). There's been a predictably hostile response in the media, and the leader of North Ayrshire  has quickly decribed the plan as a 'worst case scenario', adding "Parents by and large work round about the school week ... and it really wouldn't be practical to move away from that."

It seems like we oraganise our school systems to suit the needs of schools first, parents second, and children third.

But why is cutting back the number of hours a child spends in school such a sacred cow? Consider the Finns (I know, I'm sick to death of considering the Finns, too, but you can't ignore their results): their kids have, for decades, started school not aged six, but at seven. Academically, they seem to catch up, and then overtake, our kids pretty quickly. 

There's little historical evidence that our statutory starting age - two years ahead of the Finns - was taken on educational grounds. The early start was introduced in 1870 to guard against neglectful Victorian parenting, and to ensure that industrial employers could access young child workers at an early age, on the basis that the sooner they started school, the sooner they finished. (So, let's change that priority of needs to schools, parents, employers, then children).

Finnish kids also enjoy an 11-week summer break, (compared to our 6) and yet still spank us in PISA tests. So, perhaps Ayrshire should be praised, rather than pilloried, for having the guts to think differenty - our obsession with getting kids to do more, work harder, doesn't seem to be working, does it?

And if they need further encouragement, let me relay a story I heard at a Head Teacher conference I was speaking at, last week. I heard from a parent whose child was in the crucial Year 10, when their school burned down. Senior leaders moved quickly to set up learning opportunities in local libraries, community centres, town halls - even the local race track. Students organised themselves into peer learning groups, and a virtual learning environment was quickly set up for them. Students  followed the curriculum in a way which Sugata Mitra would define as minimally invasive and self-organised learning.

Whilst local people people were glad to see a community spirit re-establish itself, no-one believed that the temporary arrangements were any substitute for the real thing. Except, that year, the school had their best ever GCSE results.

Rather than working kids so hard, and piling homework on top of them, perhaps we should try letting them work shorter hours, with the opportunity to organise more of their own learning?

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