Is this the perfect 2015 Election promise?

I have a simple, single sentence promise to be adopted by whichever politician wants to win the General Election in 2015. I suspect that by transforming the lives of most households in the UK within 2 years of the Election, this promise might win the 2020 Election too!

The perfect 2015 Election promise needs to tick the following boxes:

– Address the cost of living crisis, especially that faced by hard working, but low income families

– Capture the imagination of women voters, especially those aged 30-45.

– Show that the political party is on the side of ordinary families against vested interests

– Reverse the view that the next generation will not have it as good as their parents

– Produce a trump card that shows we know how to win the global economic race 

– Be quick to happen, with a simple lever pulled in Whitehall, and most households having their life transformed within 2 years. 

– Not cost too much, but where it does cost more that money needs to be an obvious investment in the future

– Prove that politicians can do big things that matter in the real world, and quickly. 

A daunting checklist – but there is an answer staring us in the face. What about this for a simple manifesto promise – “From September 2016, all state funded schools will, by law, provide 45 hours of education per week for 45 weeks of the year”. This increase by two-thirds in the time that kids spend at school is designed to allow all parents to work full-time without the need for additional childcare. The average employment leave would cover all school holidays. The average working day would give most parents the chance to do a full time job, in between dropping off and picking up their kids. It introduces the length of day and school year which has been shown to have dramatic results on kids’ education in the US. It gives teachers the same sort of working week and annual holidays as other hard working professionals. It’s disruptive enough to be a real game changer in education, in employment and the economy more generally. 

We will come to the education arguments (and the teacher fury) in a moment. But the role schools play in our national and family life is far too important to leave to teachers. And it’s certainly too important to leave to their knee-jerk, as opposed to thoughtful, responses. So let’s focus on some of the non-educational arguments first. Top of the list is allowing more women to work and more women who work to work more. Women working is vital to our economic growth. There are estimated to be at least 1m more women who would work if childcare was easier. That’s a big boost to our workforce, not just in quantity, but critically in quality given the numbers of highly skilled women not working, or not working full time. Four out of ten stay-at-home mums want to work and a fifth of mums who work want to do more hours. Only just over half of single mothers work, compared to nearly three-quarters of mums with partners. 70% of working mothers earn the same as the father or more. This is a big issue for lower middle income (LMI) families (those whose situation is superbly covered by the always excellent Resolution Foundation). Over the last few decades, male breadwinners in LMI families have brought home less and income growth has depended on in-work benefits from the State and female employment. We have passed the high-water mark of what benefits can be expected to provide. So we need to focus on boosting female employment. This grew strongly in the 1970s and 1980s, but went nowhere in the 1990s and 2000’s.  Women are now half of the workforce, but 42% are part-time, compared to just 12% of men. Part-time women earn on average £8.12 per hour (vs full time on£12.00), but this means that 50% earn less than £8.12. As well as tackling low wages (see my post on the Minimum Wage), the best thing we can do to relieve poverty and the cost of living crisis is to help more women work more. Two-thirds of women say that affordable childcare is the biggest barrier, with 40% citing it as the main barrier. Full-time school should provide all the free childcare that most people could want. Imagine if, of the 5m women working part-time for an average of 18 hours per week, 20% worked 10 hours more (as they tell pollsters that they want) and 1m mums who don’t work also started working, with half being full time and half doing 18 hours per week. That’s 2m mums working more, 1m full time equivalent extra workers. This would give the UK the same sort of female employment rates as the Scandanavian countries. The State would save money – it wouldn’t have to pay parents for school age childcare costs (through all its existing vouchers and credits) and of course, it would have the tax revenues of the new workers, it could expect parents on benefits to work more. The non-educational benefits go much further. Just one example is telling. 30% of all youth offending happens between 3 and 6pm each day, in the period between school finishing and parents getting home. Full time school would eliminate this period, the peak period of youth offending. 

But is it really a good idea for kids to spend so much time at school? The key answer to that question lies in what they do with the time at school. But first, let’s check the numbers. The 45/45 school year equals 2025 hours. 45 hours is 9 to 6, or 830 to 530. Assuming 8 hours sleep each day, a kid has 5,840 waking hours each year. That means kids would still only be at school for about a third of their waking hours. Put that way, doesn’t it seem half-hearted that they currently only spend about a fifth of their waking hours at school? A two-thirds increase in education still only equals a third of a child’s time. So in numerical terms, it is clearly not too much. What about the quality of the experience? We know that the current curriculum is overloaded. In most Western countries there has been huge change in the curriculum in the last couple of decades, but no increase in the time  available. The UK positives are that more time is spent on English, Maths, assessment and (for older kids) vocational subjects. But in the zero sum curriculum, time spent on other subjects has declined to make room. The shortage of teaching hours also means that the teaching moves too quickly – there is lots to cover, not much time to explore it deeply and rarely time to help kids play catch up if they didn’t get it first time. Teachers are stressed, children are rushed and learning is frustrated. We also know that the long school holidays impact badly on kids’ progression. This impacts most badly on poorer kids. Malcolm Gladwell showed, in Outliers, that poor kids make the same progress as better-off kids during the school year, but they stagnate during the long holidays, whilst better-off kids continue to progress. The main advantage enjoyed by better-off kids in education is that they need school less than poorer kids. I can remember being infuriated by my (then) 8 year old daughter’s school which refused to set any homework activities as “they only help middle class kids, so out of fairness we don’t give homework to any of the kids”. The levelling down stills sends a chill down my spine, but we could address the point by levelling up. Having a longer school day allows for homework to be both set and completed within school hours, like the “prep” in the poshest of schools. Let’s not forget that the better-off will help themselves to more education. There are the elite boarding schools. Then there are the private day schools with 8 hours a week more teaching, plus often Saturday lessons and / or sport. In the state sector, there is the booming industry in tutors. In Japan, for all its schooling, 45% of kids over 14 are spending an average of a further 5 hours per week at the Juku, getting private tutoring. 

It is often said that we should only make a move like this if we have evidence. Well, to a point. The current UK debate is missing even that point. There is a lot of flailing around comparing international countries, their education success and the amount of schooling they get. There has been a recent flurry of comparing UK school hours to those who do better than us in international educational tests. But it is impossible to isolate just this one variable when comparing UK or US educational outcomes with, say, South Korea on the one hand and Finland on the other. The best way to find evidence is to look at variation in hours within similar schools within similar areas in the same country. There is now growing evidence from the US that extended hours makes a big difference – and more difference than many of the other things into which lots of money is being poured ( class size, better teachers, etc). Let’s look at specific examples.The Expanded Learning Time experiments in Massachussets has added 2 hours per day to pilot schools. The effect? After just 1 year, there was a 44% boost in maths proficiency, 39% in English and 19% in Science. And the achievement gap narrowed too – by 35% in English. The 57 KIPP schools in the US achieve remarkable results in the US’ most deprived areas. With 80% of kids from low income families and 90% African American or Latino, the KIPP schools’ results are 2 to 3 times better than similar schools elsewhere. The school day at KIPP? It’s 7.30-5.00, with additional Saturday sessions and summer schools too. Some smart research in the US has proven the opposite effect when school hours are reduced – when schools are closed by snow, achievement falls, in proportion to the time closed. The evidence is getting louder. In 2013, 5 US States extended learning hours by 300 hours ( the equivalent of 10 weeks extra teaching). 

What about the teachers? In schools with extended hours, the biggest supporters have become the teachers. But surely they must resent the extra hours, the longer days? Aren’t they already at breaking point? How can they be supportive? Firstly, having more time each day, means that lessons are less rushed, less stressful, more relaxed. There is more time on the task – time to explain, to repeat, to explore. Secondly, schools with extended time find new ways to free up teachers from teaching. For example, the US elementary school where there is a big PE session everyday ( not just a small one once a week as before) taken by outside sports coaches and supervised by teaching assistants. During these sessions, teachers within the same grade get time to plan work together. Thirdly, some schools have added extra weeks onto the year without reducing teacher holidays by staggering teacher leave across the year. Fourthly, schools have brought a more diverse mix of volunteers, community groups and businesses into the longer curriculum, using the extra hours for an exponential increase in cultural experiences. Finally, schools with more time think harder about how to organise that time. Using data to individualise programmes for kids, they begin to catch up with the technological ability of their kids and let them access the almost infinite range of online activities. 

In simple terms what we are doing is giving kids the equivalent of an extra 7 years of compulsory education between the ages of 5 and 16 and giving teachers almost no time constraints. This is not about creating Gradgrind Academies which didactically stuff every waking hour with facts, figures and tests. It is the opposite. It’s about creating a lot of space in the day for play, creativity, relaxation, exploration and exercise. it’s about creating acres of space across the year for trips, volunteering, personal projects, work experiences, character building and bonding. It’s about making sure that kids don’t fall behind or fail to understand. It’s about schools opening their doors to let the wider community come in to help nurture and educate local kids. It’s about disrupting the current inertia so much that schools really do fundamentally re-think how their school operates. 

What about the money? It’s bound to need some new money. But we already have the buildings and the staff to cover most of it. There is existing money to recycle. An obvious example is teaching assistants and what they currently do. There is now roughly 1 teaching assistant for each 2 teachers. And yet the evidence shows that not only do they have no positive impact, but they seem to have a negative impact. Kids are better off without them. That clearly comes down to how they are used. One simple way to redeploy this resource in the 45/45 school year which I’m proposing is for TAs to supervise group activities independent of teachers. If the 200,000 or so TAs were in charge of activities (e.g. supervising homework or enrichment activities or online education sessions), this could leave teachers free to use large parts of the longer day for preparation and marking. We also need to tap into the volunteering spirit in local communities – what is stop us bringing the outside world into the school? For example, why not bring Scouts, Guides and Cadets into the school day? Or local football clubs? Or dance classes? The extra-curricular could come into the curriculum – but for all kids, not just those with supportive or able parents. We shouldn’t rush to put large amounts of money into the system. Necessity is definitely the right mother for the invention needed to take advantage of all this new time, whilst giving teachers the time they need beyond teaching. But new money should be found. More people working, less youth crime – the immediate fiscal benefits can pay for a good deal of any extra cost. But the real payback comes from a transformed generation who will leave their extended education with far higher skills and earning potential than the current generation. That will pay-off more than any infrastructure projects. So we should make this our top investment priority – creating a new category in capital expenditure rules for “human capital”. 

Is this idea too much too soon? Well, I always think a good way to test out an apparently too bold policy idea is to ask “If this new idea had been well established for the last 20 years and we proposed scrapping it, what would be the public reaction today? Relief, indifference, opposition?” Let’s assume that today’s parents had grown up expecting that schools were open 45 weeks a year and 45 hours per week. This fitted into their full time jobs. They got the same holidays as their kids and a working day that fitted inside school hours. Their kids had a broad and rich education, with lots of enrichment. And then, in order to please teachers and save a little money, the Government of the day proposed closing schools for 7 weeks a year and shortening the school day by 2.5 hours. Suddenly, a couple of million staff (mostly women, probably) would have to give up work, or go part-time. School-life would be pared down to the bone – a crammed day, with stressful lessons, kids falling behind, kids falling out, no time of the sports or arts, no place for the community in the curriculum. There would be uproar. An Election promise to go back to what we actually have today would be the biggest vote loser in history. So why wouldn’t an Election promise for my 45 / 45 model be the biggest vote winner since 1945? It must at least be good for a 45% share of the vote. 45 – remember the number!