The Asymmetric School Week

14 Sep

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A couple of months ago I was at a Welsh Government event primarily looking at the ‘New Deal‘ programme.  At the conference, in what at the time appeared to be a remark made as an aside, the then Education Minister Huw Lewis touched on the potential of an asymmetric school week, he briefly noted it was something that was being piloted in Scotland, but there was no real fleshing out of the thinking.

There was no real discussion further about the idea until yesterday when the PPIW published its report on the system for Wales.

I’ve only read the report at a superficial level but on the surface it appears pretty balanced and maps both the primary potential benefits and concerns.  It is a report that has now been picked up by several media outlets and has sparked a fair amount of debate, not least on twitter.

The Benefits

I’m not going to go through all the reports identified benefits but simply touch on a few of the more crucial ones as I see it.

One of the biggest problems we face with regards to the teaching profession in Wales is a lack of access to professional development.  We want our teachers to constantly develop and renew their skill sets, as well as implement new policies and practices, but the truth is they simply are not afforded the time to work towards those ambitions.  One advantage of the asymmetric week, according to the report, is that it could help to establish ‘coordinated pupil free time could lead to more effective CPD, improved staff well-being and thus better teaching and consequently pupil performance.’ Anything that creates a better space for CPD should be given serious consideration.

The report also argues that ‘teachers and support staff could experience improved well-being through, for example, greater flexibility to schedule personal appointments on shorter days.’  Given we currently see over 50,000 teaching days lost a year through mental health issues, improving the well-being of the profession should not be underestimate.  Should it have a noticeable impact it could save millions and enhance the continuity of teaching in Wales.

The Concerns

There are a few clear concerns that are outlined in the report and certainly are not ones that should be taken lightly.

At the heart of the issue has to always be the impact on pupil well-being and standards.  If it works for pupils then it will have merit.  If it does not then it is simply not worth exploring.  One concern in that regards is that pupils will run into fatigue on the longer school days.  Most teachers will tell you that as school gets towards those last few hours and lessons children will become less engaged and become fatigued.  Extending the school day, particularly for the very youngest pupils, could undoubtedly result in a less productive school environment.

There are some key issues also on the periphery such as transport concerns, especially children to come to school on foot during the later darker evenings, and childcare costs that would make this a difficult move to sell to the general public.

I did a radio interview for Radio Wales on this and one point made very well by the teacher who was on with me is that this could lead to a further reduction in the commitment to creative subjects.  Teachers are already deeply upset that the intense focus on literacy and numeracy, while understandable and important, has negatively impacted on the more artistic pursuits in school.  The fear with the asymmetrical week is that it further narrows those areas of work, with a reduction in extra curricular activities and teachers cramming even more into their lessons due to the loss of a half day.

There is also a concern that while this may offer a short-term solution, and there is an uplift in the availability of CPD and non-teaching time initially when introduced, that over a longer period of time we simply see those spaces filled up with the usual story and instead of supporting teachers we end up creating a bigger burden on their workloads.

Summary

For a more in-depth review of the pros and cons I would recommend looking at the report in its entirety.  For me there certainly is some merit in having this debate.  I’m never against change if it can be demonstrated to enhance the educational offering to pupils.  At present however there just isn’t enough of an evidence base to convince me that this will work.  Of course on the flip side if that’s the attitude we have then we will always be afraid to be bold and innovative.  Perhaps I’m more reluctant to take a shot in the dark at the moment due to the curriculum, qualification and other reforms already setting the sector on such a radically different course than it has been on in the past that greater upheaval isn’t appealing.

Ultimately my gut instinct is that the majority of teachers and parents would be weary of implementing this.  There would be more resistance than excitement and there are more concerns than positives.  More importantly I feel the concerns would have a bigger impact than the benefits would provide.

Of course this was a report commissioned by Huw Lewis.  With a new Education Secretary in place and the past Minister no longer an Assembly Member this may all be a moot point anyway.

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