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Do we change the seat covers … or buy a new car? March 23, 2012

Posted by IaninSheffield in Musings.
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Just this week Russell Pollock tweeted:

How do you feel about the format of the traditional school week? Do you think it should change? Time, days, format, location? Please respond (http://twitter.com/#!/RussellPollock/status/183078043642892289)

I only caught the tail-end of quite an extended exchange on this theme and may well have missed some of the responses, but it certainly got me thinking.


cc licensed ( BY NC SD ) flickr photo by DanieVDM: http://flickr.com/photos/dvdmerwe/243335354/

After stepping back a little, I suspect that tweaking the school week is merely nibbling at the edges. After all, how much wiggle room is there? Start or finish each day a little earlier or later. Change the period length – 5 x 1 hour periods to 6 x 50 minute periods for example … or go to a two-week timetable? Steal a few minutes from the dinner break? I’ve seen and experienced pretty much all of these during my career and I have to say, they made very little difference. Perhaps it’s because the timetable, structure and curriculum remained in essentially the same rigid format. As such they were there to satisfy the needs of the organisation (school) far more than the needs of the learners. It’s about being able to deploy resources (human and physical) as efficiently as possible, rather than providing learning opportunities geared to the needs of individual learners. If there are any senior leaders reading this for whom the vein on the temple has just started throbbing, I’m not suggesting that their students’ needs aren’t paramount to them, but that the whole system provides multiple levels of constraint. For example:

  • Exam times are fixed in the school year, so each student has to be at the right place in their learning in order to perform at their best. Wouldn’t it make more sense if students could sit exams when they were ready? For some that might be a year earlier, whilst other might need a little longer. If you’re in the IT industry and studying for Microsoft, Cisco, Adobe or any of the other vendor qualifications, you sit the exam when you’re ready, not at specific times in the year. Is it too much of a stretch to think we could do something similar in school-centred education? Why are exams (in the UK) in January and June? (I’ll come back to that one)
  • In recent years, the curriculum has to a large extent become fixed; controlled by the National Curriculum as directed by the Government. At age 14, students notionally have a choice of subjects, though in reality the shackles are still on as prescribed by having to study core subjects (English, Maths etc), then often selecting from groups of optional topics which exclude certain combinations. This is to ‘encourage’ students into a generalist rather than specialist curriculum and to allow the school once more to manage its resources efficiently. I’d be incredibly surprised if a school accommodated a student choosing Theatre Studies, Music, Media Studies and Drama together with the core … and maybe that’s right.
  • School days begin around 8.30, + or – a bit, ending similarly around 3.30. This is almost universal for all students for whom compulsory education applies. There is no notion that actually the school day might stretch between 8 am and 8 pm, with attendance being required for a proportion of that. Whilst this degree of flexibility is neither likely to be appropriate nor desirable for younger children, for older ones, perhaps not at the best in the early hours, there may be benefits to be gained. I wonder to what extent education is about child-minding for working parents or that schools don’t offer longer, more flexible opening hours because of increased costs?
  • The school year. Why do we still cling on to a schedule which demands periods of frenetic, high-intensity activity, followed by periods of relative calm and recuperation? We cram a phenomenal amount into 6/7 week half-terms, follow it with a much needed break, then repeat six times a year. And there’s the 6 week summer break – does it really need to be that long? Would it not make more sense to smooth out those peaks and troughs by exploring other ways of providing students with their 190 school days per annum? Or even whether 190 days ‘on site’ is entirely appropriate for the whole student population? Might a four day week actually suit some students better? What if (again mainly for older ones?) some days in the week required compulsory attendance, whilst others offered optional study/sport/arts/visits?


    cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo by comedy_nose: http://flickr.com/photos/comedynose/4906846651/

  • Exams themselves. The formal, state-mandated examination system drives far too much of the agenda for schools and students. It is the external examination schedule which determines the order and structure of the school year with an inordinate proportion of time given over to exam prep, whether in loss of lessons for revision/practice papers or for mock exam week(s). How much ‘real’ learning is lost to chasing exam results to satisfy Ofsted inspectors or league table positions. The reason why schools can’t encourage or allow their students to access learning pathways, perhaps more appropriate to their needs, which offer different modes of accreditation (vendor qualifications, skills-based certification, Badges) or open, non-accredited ‘courses’ (P2P University, MOOCs and various other open courses from MIT, Yale, the OU etc) is that they don’t carry a ‘points tariff’ the school can use in chasing its league table position.

So to answer Russell’s original question, I’m not fond of the traditional school week. But I don’t think ‘the week’ is the right unit to address; I think we should go for the school year … together with the curriculum and the assessment system. It’s a big debate and a good reason to get involved in initiatives like Purpos/ed. And when we’ve sorted that out, we can take the rest of the weekend off.