In this article I’ll be exploring this very question.
We all know that COVID-19 has caused considerable disruption to schools and colleges, and in turn, considerable disruption to student learning.
In response to this disruption, the UK government has proposed the following two questions:
o extend the length of the school day and to reduce the amount of time students have off in the summer to provide students with an opportunity to ‘catch up’ with any learning they have missed.
But does simply giving students more time, actually improve their outcomes?
Logically, you would think it would – the more time we spend learning, the more we learn.
But unfortunately, it’s never quite that simple and this topic certainly requires a bit of a deeper dive.
When I began to explore of this question I first wondering what teachers thought about it.
So, rather than wondering, I asked them.
I surveyed over 300 teachers and asked them:
Should the school day be longer, and should the school year be longer, to allow students time to catch up on their learning?
And they were, quite predictably some may say, overwhelmingly opposed to the idea.
No = 98%
Maybe = 2%
Yes = 0%
Let’s see what what Gavin Williamson, Secretary of State for Education of the UK, had to say on the matter when he was interviewed by Sophy Ridge on Sky News.
Gavin Williamson did not commit to the idea of extending school days and reducing summer breaks but he did suggest this was one approach that is being seriously considered.
Now let’s hear what Amanda Spielman, Chief Inspector of Education, Children Services and Skills for the UK, had to say what she spoke to Sky News.
A slightly different perspective shared there by Amanda Spielman, being slightly more cautious with this idea and warning of potential issues if this is introduced.
Although there were some differences in opinion expressed by Gavin Williamson and Amanda Spielman, one area they did agree on was the need for a research-informed approach.
Which is somewhat refreshing!
However, when they were asked by the reporter, neither of them seemed to clearly know what the research is telling us.
So, I thought I would help out and do this for them.
I have reviewed the literature for studies which intended to answer the questions: should the school day be longer and should the school year be longer?
I will do my very best to summarise these findings in a concise and meaningful way.
A sensible place to start in answering this question would be to refer to the PISA 2018 data.
For anyone who doesn’t know, PISA is an international study covering over 80 countries which compares 15-year-olds’ performance in reading, mathematics, and science.
Based on the PISA 2018 data, simply having a longer school day does not, on its own, result in improved student outcomes.
From the PISA results, Australia has one of the longest school days of all the countries included, with the USA as close second.
Countries with shorter school days, such as Finland, Estonia, Korea, and Sweden, all out-performed Australia and the USA on reading, maths and science.
However, there is some evidence to suggest that extended school days may provide some benefits to students, particularly in relation to disadvantaged students and those at risk of academic failure.
Patall et al. 2010 found that extending the school day can be effective for students most at risk of failure – but good quality teaching was still considered to be essential.
Similarly, an EEF review in 2019 found that after-school programmes with a clear structure, a strong link to the curriculum, and well-qualified staff were more clearly linked to academic benefits than other types of extended hours provision.
PISA identified that there is no meta-analysis which looks at the effect of the length of the school year, but there are traditional reviews, and based on these the effect is extremely small.
Referring back to the PISA data, and considering the same countries again, Australia and the USA have the longest school years and when compared to countries with shorter school years, such as Finland, Estonia, Korea, and Sweden, all those with shorter school years perform better in reading, maths and science.
Therefore, the evidence suggests that simply having a longer school year, on its own, does not necessarily improve student outcomes.
In support of this is John Hattie (2020), who explains that the effects of school holidays, particularly the longer summer break, are actually very small.
There is often talk about the negative impact on students having a long summer break.
The argument is that students will make little progress during this time and also run the risk of forgetting what they learned over this time.
However, the negative impact on students of the ‘vacation effect’ or ‘summer school length effect’ is not significant in the majority of cases.
The National Bureau of Economic Research 2013 found that the quality of teaching and the classroom environment were far more important than the amount of time students spent in lessons.
Similarly, the OECD 2016 summarised that studies have shown that the subject being taught, the motivation level of student, how the curriculum is structured and how good the teacher is as all having an impact on student outcomes, much more so than simply offering more time.
This is also support by Patall et al. 2010, who conducted a systematic review of 15 studies which looked at offering more time for students and found the effect to be generally weak.
This raises the question of whether longer days which also consist of high quality teaching would benefit students?
But is it realistic to think that we can achieve both quality and quantity?
The EEF review in 2019 also found that summer schools with a clear academic component were associated with an average of two months additional progress.
In addition, greater impacts, up to 4 months additional progress in some cases, were seen when summer schools were delivered in a more intensive way.
Other important aspects of success included sufficient access to relevant resources, smaller group sizes for tuition and experienced, competent teachers.
However, it was noted that attendance and student wellbeing were a consideration when using this approach – particularly in the case of teenagers.
It is important to place the impact of longer school days and longer school years on student outcomes at the centre of this discussion. But there are a number of other relevant factor that require consideration.
More teaching means more teachers and more teachers means increased costs.
In state-funded education systems, and in schools which are dealing with tight budgets, this may not be a viable or sustainable approach.
Existing teachers will have employment contracts in place which determine their roles and responsibilities.
Any changes to these contractual agreements, locally or nationally, would require significant consultation with teaching unions and school leaders which could prove problematic for policy makers.
In 2017 the Department for Education (DfE) reported that parents raised concerns that there would be a negative impact on the study-life balance for students.
Parents felt their children would find it difficulty to have a ‘childhood’ and they would not be able to spend the same amount of time socialising with family and friends.
In the same report, parents expressed safety concerns over children travelling home alone later in the evening, particularly during winter months when it gets dark earlier.
It has also been proposed that extended school days may increase fatigue and reduce student motivation to engage in their learning.
Learning is an active process and expecting a student to focus and actively engage in learning for a prolonged period of time may be problematic.
The impact would also be similar for teachers.
Teachers work extremely long hours during term time and do so knowing they have regular breaks between these busy periods of work.
If these breaks were to be removed or reduced this would significantly increase the stress and pressure on teachers and would make the role unsustainable.
Before and after school clubs and extra curricula activities would have to go to make way for more lessons and teaching.
We know that students benefit considerably from these extra curricula activities and reducing or removing this provision would result in a lack of outdoor time and opportunities for physical exercise.
Which, by the way, has been linked in many studies with improvements in academic performance.
These clubs and activities also act as an effective means of engaging students in school life and further enhancing their future opportunities.
Let’s reiterate the two main questions we set out to answer:
Before attempting to summarise these findings, it must be noted that when considering research such as this, direct links between length of school day and summer breaks and student outcomes are very difficult to precisely identify due the multiple variables that are in play.
Most findings on this subject are typically correlations and relationships, but when triangulated with other research findings we can start to paint an overall picture of what the research is suggesting.
Extending school days and reducing summer breaks, on its own, appears to have little impact on student outcomes.
However, if these additional hours and days consist of high quality teaching and learning and are planned inline with the curriculum being offered, improvements are more likely to occur.
These improvements will typically be more significant for disadvantaged students and students at risk of failure.
The overall benefits of replacing before and after teaching clubs and extra curricula activities are not clear. There may be an improvement in academic performance but this could be at the detriment of the student personal and social development.
There is some evidence to suggest that intense, high quality summer schools can improve student outcomes.
It is important that any plans to extend school days and reduce summer breaks also take into account wider implications beyond student outcomes.
Factors such as cost, contractual obligations, student motivation and student and teacher wellbeing all need to be central to the debate.
I would love to hear your thoughts on this topic so please add a comment below.