One radical change would solve many of our country's problems at a stroke. No party has dared to contemplate it at election time, because it would be opposed by the educational establishment, most teachers and their unions.
If schools looked after their pupils until 5.30pm, the dangerous gap between the end of school and the return of parents from work would close. This extra time would revitalise school life for all - especially the less academic. It would keep pupils off the streets, reducing boredom, excessive television watching, shoplifting, vandalism, juvenile delinquency and drug taking. It would create opportunities for supervised "homework" at school, music, art, drama, extra games and PE and dozens of useful hobbies, interests and "fringe" activities of great educational value which have been squeezed out by the pressures of League Tables, the core curriculum and the earlier end to school.
No juggling with our penal system would do half as much to reduce the young criminal underclass or to make more of our children employable.
Teachers and their unions would protest energetically, because they struggled for an earlier end to school to make room for corrections, preparation of lessons, committee work and form filling. They would feel that they were again being asked to sacrifice their family lives for longer hours without financial advantage.
Not so. The extra hours in the afternoon would be compensated by free periods at other times. They would be staffed by volunteers who enjoyed them and had skills. Some activities would be looked after by societies and clubs outside the schools; but the school would be responsible. Senior masters would be well paid to take on the necessary reorganisation.
It would be expensive, but there would be vast savings through the reduction of street crime, of prison costs, vandalism, shoplifting and drug-linked theft.
It would be compulsory for all pupils.
New subjects crowd the overburdened curriculum. In addition to the basics, room has had to be found for computer studies, graphic design and technology, sociology and sex education, business studies and economics and vocational subjects. Anything inessential (unmeasured by league tables) is jettisoned.
Religious studies and philosophy shrink and shrivel, physical education and games are often reduced to one useless period, art and music are marginalised, history and geography reduced or amalgamated, physics and chemistry become general science, botany and zoology become biology.
There would be huge opportunities: remedial work at weak subjects, overflow from the normal curriculum, homework under conditions of supervised silence.
The possibilities are endless. Art, drama, typing, shorthand, computer and design work, business, games, public speaking,cCivics. Social service in co-operation with local churches, contacts with blind, deaf and handicapped. Visits and links with industry, business and art galleries and museums. Building and gardening. Projects in Environmental Studies, Natural History, Geology, Geography, Economics and Local History. Sport of all kinds: team games, tennis, squash, badminton, swimming, cross country running, athletics, dancing, sailing, rowing, riding, table tennis, cycling and chess. Outward bound expeditions and orienteering.
No single school could offer more than a careful selection, depending on its geographical location, its staff, finances and the help and facilities locally available. Priority for restoring facilities must go to inner- city schools. The principle is clear: the time gained should cast the network of opportunities so wide that even the dullest pupil can find something of value and interest, and no potential can remain undiscovered. The more boys and girls are exposed to creative hobbies and sports, the more they will find some sphere for enjoyment and success: success in one sphere spreads to others, including academic work.
Some will object that the pupils would be overworked. Except for primary children, who would have a slightly shorter day, this is nonsense. The hours would be much shorter than those worked at many independent schools, where senior pupils work on Saturdays, have hobbies or games every afternoon and have over two hours of homework in conditions of silence every evening. We can't afford not to make the attempt.
The writer is former head of Gresham's School in Norfolk.Reuse content