Schoolchildren must have shorter holidays and spend more time each day in the classroom so Britain is not disadvantaged in the global economic race, Michael Gove demanded yesterday.
The Education Secretary warned that the current school timetable is out of date and only fit for the agricultural economy of the 19th century – where children had to have long summer holidays to help in the fields.
He said that the current system left pupils at a “significant handicap” compared to children in East Asian nations who benefited from extra tuition and support from teachers.
But his proposals were immediately rejected by the National Union of Teachers who accused him of making up policy “on the hoof with no real evidence”.
Speaking at a conference in London Mr Gove said the Government was intending to push foundation schools and free schools to use their independence to devise new hours.
“I think it's the case that the structure of the school term and the school day were designed at a time when we had an agricultural economy,” he said.
“Half term in October, when I was at school in Aberdeen it was called 'tattie holiday' because it was the period when children went into the fields to pick potatoes.
“It was also fixed on a world where a majority of mums stayed home. That world no longer exists and we can't afford to have an education system that essentially its hours were set in the 19th century.”
Mr Gove said that research in Hong Kong, Singapore and other East Asian nations showed that expectations of mathematical knowledge and scientific knowledge were “at every stage” more demanding than in Britain.
“In order to reach those levels of achievement a higher level of effort is expected on behalf of students, parents and teachers,” he said.
“School days are longer, school holidays are shorter. The expectation is that to succeed, hard work is at the heart of everything.”
Mr Gove said he wanted to see schools introduce a longer day for pupils, suggesting that some are already “recognising that we need to change the structure of the school term and in particular that it is poorer children that lose out from longer holidays.”
“If we look at the length of the school day in England, the length of the summer holiday and we compare it to the extra tuition and support children are receiving elsewhere then we are fighting, or running, in this global race in a way which ensures we already start with a significant handicap,” he said.
“It is also the case that some of the best schools in the country are moving to a longer school day as well.”
Mr Gove said that the Government was making changes to teachers' pay, terms and conditions which would mean they could be paid more for taking on extra duties and allow headteachers to organise their staff “in a way to get more out of young people”.
“It may be that there are one or two legislative or bureaucratic obstacles that prevent all schools from moving in this direction but I think it's consistent with the pressures of a modern society," he said.
But Christine Blower, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, retorted: “Teachers and pupils already spend longer hours in the classroom than most countries and also have some of the shortest summer holidays.
“Independent schools in England and Wales, which often break for two weeks more during the summer and have longer holidays at other times of the year than their state counterparts, do not apparently feel the need to change and are apparently not suffering from their reduced hours.
“Yet again we see the Education Secretary making policy up on the hoof with no real evidence for either the necessity for change or the benefit it brings”.
Government is disjointed, says former minister
A former Tory education minister has launched an outspoken attack on David Cameron accusing him of presiding over a disjointed Government that briefed the media before ministers.
Tim Loughton, who served in the Department of Education until last September, revealed that he had not spoken to his former boss Michael Gove since he was dismissed from office last September.
He also suggested a senior Tory advisor was behind a smear campaign designed to blacken his name. In an interview with The House magazine Mr Loughton said he witnessed a number of occasions when Downing Street briefed the media on eduction stories his department knew nothing about.
"One thing I noticed was a real lack of cross government co-operation – and joined up government was a myth. It wasn't happening in practice," he said.
"Too often we were having to second guess what Number 10 was doing. On some occasions the first thing you'd know about (an announcement) was when you read about it in the papers."