HOLD THAT BELL

Britain wants to make its kids smarter by adding an hour to the school day

Britain’s chancellor of the exchequer announced Wednesday (March 15) that the UK will spend up to £285 million ($400.7 million) for a quarter of secondary schools to extend their school day by an hour, in an attempt to improve academic standards.

“It is simply unacceptable that Britain continues to sit too low down the global league tables for education,” he said in his annual budget speech.

But do longer school days help?

The Education Endowment Foundation, a non-profit group that aims to close the achievement gap between family income and educational attainment through evidence-based research, finds that on average, pupils make two additional months‘ progress per year from extended school time or well-designed after-school programs. Disadvantaged students benefit more, with ancillary benefits in terms of school attendance, behavior, and relationships with peers.

This meta-study (pdf) by the American Institutes for Research concludes pretty much the same thing: programs focused on increased learning time slightly improve literacy and math achievement, as long as the programs are led by certified teachers.

Overall, the effects are small and they overlook the opportunity cost of what that hour could be used for: free play. That hour could be committed to non-academic things to help balance the increased academic demands put on kids.

Research shows there is no magic formula to how many hours of school is best. Formal instruction-time in schools around the world range from 6,054 hours in Hungary to 10,710 hours in Australia, according to the OECD (pdf). But there are bigger forces at play than number of hours of instruction.

“The amount of time spent in school is much less important than how the available time is spent and on which subject, what methods of teaching and learning are used, how strong the curriculum is, and how good the teachers are,” the OECD concluded.

Kids in Korea, for example, have a relatively short day, but they then go study so much that the government has to stage 10pm raids on study centers to get kids to go home (they apparently don’t go home, but hide with their tutors so they can study more). In France, kids can go to school early and stay late, until 6:30pm. The US puts in significantly more hours than most, with lackluster performance.

The British chancellor conceded that there was only enough money for a quarter of schools to extend their hours.

“It is highly divisive that the funding will only be available to 25% of secondary schools as this will potentially disadvantage children at the three quarters of schools which miss out,” said Malcolm Trobe, Interim General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said.

But the bigger problem is the one the OECD highlights: time spent in school is secondary to the quality of teachers, the quality of the training they get, and how they are treated. Maybe he’s waiting for next year to tackle that.

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