Saturday morning classes for children from disadvantaged homes will be set up if the Conservatives win the general election.
Michael Gove, the shadow Education Secretary, said he wanted schools to open for longer during the week and on Saturday mornings to help close the achievement gap between poorer pupils and those who are better off.
Speaking at the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) annual conference in Manchester yesterday, Mr Gove said the extra classes would help provide a similar cultural experience to that enjoyed by young people from middle-class homes brought up on a diet of books by their parents. "Children who come from homes where parents don't have the resources to provide additional stretch and cultural experiences could benefit from being in school for longer," he said. "I believe there is a case for school on Saturday morning to help stretch children."
However, delegates at the ATL conference laughed when he said that – if it was to succeed – the plan would have to have the enthusiastic support of staff.
Mr Gove said he was basing his idea on plans already developed in the United States by the Knowledge Is Power Programme, in which inner-city schools are run by teachers and stay open from 7.30am until 5pm during the week and also on Saturday mornings.
A handful of the Government's academies have introduced Saturday morning classes and longer hours, including Mossbourne Academy in Hackney, which has some of the best GCSE results in London. However, in the UK generally, Saturday morning classes are mostly the preserve of independent schools.
Mr Gove stressed it would be up to individual schools as to whether they introduced the plan.
He added that the plan would help overcome the fact that children from poorer homes were more likely to fall back in their learning as a result of the long summer holidays, as their parents cannot afford cultural and learning activities such as music tuition or extra coaching. "My hunch is that families would prefer there to be longer hours," he said. "Parents would love to have schools starting earlier and certainly love school to be going on later to fit in with their working lives."
However, Mr Gove's plan was greeted with scepticism by parents' leaders, who said the proposals were "unrealistic" at a time of public spending cuts. "It has incredible implications for schools in terms of heating, lighting and opening-up of school buildings," said Margaret Morrissey of the pressure group ParentsOutloud.
"I can understand why he's saying that, but I think the suggestion made by the Government of one-to-one teaching is a more preferable way of improving these children's standards," she continued. "Making this kind of suggestion when we're teetering on the edge of a recession is terribly unrealistic."