The wrong priority, Mr Gove?

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While Michael Gove argues for longer school days and shorter holidays, our university funding system is in meltdown. Marion Gibbs questions our government's priorities.

Our students have returned refreshed and very focused from their Easter breaks. The amount of work being produced, particularly by those in years 11 to 13 and their eagerness to seek help and advice from their teachers have increased enormously.

It is true that the impending public examinations have sharply focused their minds; but it is also true that before the break most of them were very tired and run down. They needed a holiday and a chance to reflect and, as we are an independent school, they have enjoyed a three-week break.

Many of them spent part of their holidays on school trips – we had exchange visits to France, Italy and Germany, a geography field trip to South Wales, an religious studies study trip in Amsterdam, a hockey tour in Holland, a study visit to the First World War Battlefields, and Silver Duke of Edinburgh’s Award expeditions in the UK. According to Mr Gove, our students should perhaps now be achieving less well, because they have had a long holiday.

There is no very clear correlation between the length of a school day or a school term or holiday and the level of students’ achievements. We in the independent sector have traditionally enjoyed longer holidays than our state counterparts, but we also work a longer school day.

Our students have to be in school for 8:25am and formal lessons end at 3:45pm. Many choose to stay on-site till 5:30pm, working in the library, making use of art rooms, ICT facilities, music facilities, practices and rehearsals, drama activities or a large number of sporting activities, clubs, societies and visiting speakers.

We have a full hour’s lunch break during which all have to remain on-site and many activities also take place. It is not just a straight academic slog of more than seven hours. Most independent schools are fortunate to be able to run an extensive programme of extra-curricular activities, which provide variety within and beyond the school day, spark students’ creativity and imagination and stimulate their energy.

Indeed, one of the shining examples of an academy with extra-long hours, widely quoted in the press, was a school which caters for elite athletes and provides training sessions for them before and after school, as well as meals and prep time – the students are not in academic lessons from 8am to 7pm.

It will also be very interesting to see whether the academy which now starts at 10am each day, to fit in better with teenagers’ circadian rhythms, achieves the improved examination results it is predicting.

In this part of London, most of the local state schools provide an extensive programme of after-school revision and booster classes for GCSE students and specialist revision courses for them at weekends and during school holidays, staffed by their own teachers. Some might ask whether these would be necessary if the school day from year 7 were longer; but perhaps their students are just like ours – their motivation and focus increases dramatically as examinations draw closer. 

Students learn best when they are fresh, motivated and interested and those who are more academically able often (but not always) find it easier to concentrate for longer periods. All students also need variety within their daily schedule. As in so many areas of education – one size does not fit all!

The other story which caught my eye this week relates to universities. No-one should really be surprised that about a quarter of all the EU students who take up places in UK universities receiving loans from the UK student loan company, disappear without trace and do not repay any of their loan.

As I and many others have pointed out before, we have no mechanism for enforcing the repayment of student loans from anyone who is not paying tax in the UK.

As the reality of this situation begins to have an impact, alongside university fees rising more rapidly than expected, which has led to an increased demand for funding, and many UK graduates not finding the sort of employment which makes them eligible to have to repay their loans, the wheels are coming off our university funding system – it will soon be unsustainable.

Perhaps it is best not to mention this to our younger students as we rejoice in their increased enthusiasm for learning!

  • Marion Gibbs is head of James Allen’s Girls’ School in south London.


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