Michael Gove, our chirpy young education secretary, wants to extend school hours and cut holidays. I am only six years beyond compulsory education and, thus, have an irrational aversion to the idea. My thirteen-year-old self is feigning illness at the thought. Experience, though, prejudices me against the former idea on somewhat more reasonable grounds: it seems to me one problem in the education system is not the amount of hours that children spend in school on weekdays but the amount of those hours that are squandered.
At school, for example, we had a baffling period known as “tutor time”. Sometimes we performed team-building exercises, which was futile as few of us spent time with each other outside of the groups. Sometimes we watched comical health and safety videos, which made the old Green Cross Man adverts appear downright sophisticated. Sometimes we just doodled on the fronts of our textbooks. Our tutors, who had no particular knowledge of us, little idea of what to do and no enthusiasm for it, hung around and grumped.
At least some of the average day was doomed to irrelevance, then, and sections of the terms were also misused. As Christmas, Easter or summer holidays approached, teachers, without exams to prepare us for and with an aversion to planning lessons, would play videos and organise games of little or no relevance to our studies. We liked this, of course, because we got to watch Blackadder. Ultimately, though, there was no point in going to an institution that we disliked to do things that we did not profit from. I could have stuck a video on at home.
A third and more depressing means of squandering time was observing the struggles between teachers and unruly kids. A lot of the top and middle sets would have two or three boys who regularly disrupted the progress of the class and made us bemused witness to their and the teachers’ arguments, threats and periods of mutual sulking. It could seem amusing at the time, but in retrospect it wasted hours that we could have spent learning or, hell, enjoying ourselves elsewhere. Some of these playful pupils matured or dealt with the problems their behaviour had reflected, so I am not proposing that they be tossed onto the scrap heap, but it was unfair that they obstructed the education of so many other kids, and their continued presence was a great obstruction. I remember far more euphemisms for the erect penis than French adjectives or quadratic equations.
None of this is to suggest that schooldays should be ordered with regimented efficiency, with teachers reading to the tick of metronomes, or cameras eyeing the kids’ every movements. A little looseness offers minds space in which to function. I regret the hours we spent wasting our brain cells and those of our teachers, though, and I remain sure that efforts could be made to trim the fat off days before enlarging them. The non-partisan Education Endowment Foundation agrees, saying that, “Evidence suggests that it is likely to be cheaper and more efficient to focus on using existing school time more effectively before considering extending school time”. As our youths already spend more time in school than those of most developed countries, including nations with kids that seem to perform better, this makes sense to me.
Sorry, thirteen-year-old self. I know you like Blackadder, and it is entertaining when Sam enrages Miss. Yet if that time had been used effectively you might have learned those foreign languages or grasped those laws of science, and if you had grown more disciplined in using time you might have taken those guitar or martial arts lessons. Hey, why didn’t you do those things? Hello?