Is extending the school day the key to raising standards?

Francis Gilbert's picture
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Braving the ice and snow on my bike, I cycled down to the King Solomon Academy (KSA) near Marylebone station today. Behind the black gates of the entrance there's a huge banner proclaiming  "Climbing the mountain to university" which told me a lot straight away. This Academy, run by ARK, an education charity, is all about instilling high expectations in its students from the get-go. The website says:

"King Solomon Academy is a brand new, all-through school for 3 - 18 year olds in Lisson Grove. It opened in September 2007 with two reception classes and will grow each year, until there are classes for children from nursery age right through to sixth form. The secondary school opened in September 2009."

I was shown round by Katie Oliver, a young, vibrant project manager for all ARK schools. She bubbles with enthusiasm for what ARK schools are doing and is at pains to point out that ARK schools are genuinely local schools: they draw pupils from their catchment areas, which are always in areas of high social deprivation. ARK schools don't subscribe to "banding", with their own admissions criteria being geographical distance. That said, it was notable amongst the students I talked to how many clearly came from highly aspirational homes. One Year 7 girl told me, "Most Academies are rubbish, but this one is good." In Westminster, the exam statistics and Ofsted reports tell me that the Westminster and Paddington Academies have struggled to attain the high standards of the ARK school; they too take a disproportionate number of pupils on FSM. Most children from wealthy backgrounds go private or, if they are girls, attend Marylebone School For Girls. Surprise, surprise the school uses the dodge that many schools wanting a highly aspirational intake opt for: they have a complicated admissions' process, screening for Christianity, Performing Arts skills, and banding as well. I bet that keeps some parents busy!

Fortunately, KSA doesn't go in for this kind of cherry picking. Approximately sixty per cent of students at KSA are on Free School Meals (FSM), a key indicator of poverty. A quick tour of the primary and secondary school by the Deputy Head of the Primary school, and the Secondary school showed me that the school is clearly doing very well. From what I saw, the school is doing what most good and outstanding primaries and secondaries are doing throughout the country; maintaining high standards of discipline, challenging their pupils with meaningful, demanding work, encouraging active learning, assessing pupils regularly and having close contact with the parents. What was impressive about KSA -- and many of the best Academies such as Mossbourne -- is that the value-added looks very good; pupils assessed initially as having no ability to read and write in reception are attaining top level twos at seven years of age; this is well above the national average. Considering the intake is so deprived, this is very striking indeed.

I couldn't help feeling that the extended school day had something to do with it; in the primary school, the pupils start at 8am and finish at either 4pm or 4.30pm. Many secondary school children stay on until 6pm. The head told me that this was necessary because they'd only get into trouble if left to hang the neighbourhood. ARK schools pay their teachers more to compensate for the longer school days. The holidays are more or less the same, but they are paid to do a week's extra training as well.

Overall, I was impressed with KSA. My reservations were essentially few and far between; I was a little concerned that there was a bit too much micromanaging going on of the children. For example, the children are told where to sit at lunch and have to stay in those places all year unless told otherwise by their teacher; there's quite a bit of research that micromanaging pupils' "free time" in school like this does inhibit autonomy. I also felt that the points system they had going could make some of the pupils be motivated only because of the financial rewards involved, rather than encouraging a genuine love of learning. But, for me, these are relatively small quibbles. I really thought the focus upon the basics of reading and writing, the systematic push to get every child loving and doing the performing arts, the way the school fostered the children to be responsible for their own learning were all great.

It's all stuff that the best LA-run schools are doing. Are ARK doing better than most though because they do it for longer? Is it time to insist that all schools have a longer school day?

Advantages of extended school day?Disadvantages of extending school time too much?
More time for learning; evidence indicates it significantly improves exam results and the chances of attending universityToo much learning could make it a chore and boring; will the children cope in the unstructured environment of university?
Structured time to do homework; “prep time” means homework will always be done; this means much less conflict with angry teachers chasing up missing homeworkPupils don’t learn how to structure their own time; teachers never really spot who are the disorganised pupils
A chance for enrichment activities, especially for children who might not be given these at homeCompulsory enrichment means children never quite learn to find their own enjoyment;
Gives staff a chance to extend their range, to teach more subjects, to make more money?The long hours could lead to high staff turnover; some charter schools in the US lose half their staff every year because of the long days.
No chance to get into trouble in their neighbourhood; no latch-key kids; parents have time to workPupils learn that the local area is the “other”, a “dangerous place” which is essentially without meaning; parents don't get enough time to spend with their children
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