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SIMONS Jonathan

 Jonathan Simons is Head of Education at Policy Exchange

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 70-80 per cent of private schools). There are some great examples, including the David Young Community Academy for secondary, and the Great Yarmouth Primary Academy. 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 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 and 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? We believe such a decision should be one for individual schools to make. Unsurprisingly, but by no means unreasonably, teachers are unwilling to work extra hours to provide services 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 for appreciable gains, 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. Whilst existing schools in England have managed to find additional funding for staff salaries (normally a 5-10 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, rather than sitting idle ready to be put to work once  more. 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 (eg on assumptions made about staff costs such as teacher salary increases), but might range from around £500 million at the lowest end to potentially close to £7 billion. Some activities, such as childcare, may be chargeable to parents, but are unlikely to remove the need for significant subsidies to run at scale.

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 (and around two thirds did), access to safe, cheap and reliable transport is absolutely essential to making access to services a reality. Almost ten years ago, Policy Exchange published a short pamphlet by Sir Peter Lampl of the Sutton Trust calling for the national introduction of yellow buses for pupils. Something akin to this may be needed for a new scheme to have a real impact.

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.

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