A longer school day or shorter holidays? There are ways to improve pupil outcomes

A longer school day or shorter holidays? There are ways to improve pupil outcomes
Photo: Papi Morake / Gallo images and Unsplash

There have been several studies on the pros and cons of extending learning hours per day versus making the school year longer by shortening holidays. The former seems to achieve better results.

This is probably the worst time of year to be initiating a debate on the extension of the school day as teachers, pupils and parents are still getting started. But it is a discussion worth having, because it can have a positive impact on so many people.

The discussions on an extended school day became more urgent after so many students around the world experienced learning losses because of Covid-related school closures.

Typically, primary schools finish between 1pm and 2pm and children are sent home, or some schools start extracurricular activities. This can create issues for working parents since they still have two or three hours of work to complete. A solution for this, and for a few other issues, is to keep all children at school until 4pm or 5pm.

These additional hours can be used to lengthen the overall day with more time for breaks, extracurriculars, language, or other enrichment programmes for which there isn’t time otherwise, as well as giving more time to engaging pupils in each lesson.

In 2021, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) published a working paper looking at extended school days around the world, and how they might improve learning outcomes, promote equity and support parents to combine work and family lives.

The exciting aspect of the debate is that school day extensions provide an opportunity to rethink schools as places just for learning. Instead, they can also be for more holistic student engagement and support.

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The OECD report shows that the relationship between teaching time and student outcomes is complex, and that the effect of added teaching time is dependent on a range of factors, including the quality of teaching and the classroom environment.

The effect also varies across student groups and appears to be characterised by diminishing returns to scale. Beyond a certain point, adding more teaching time may cause boredom or fatigue and reduce students’ ability to concentrate, and this may even cause a rise in classroom disruption and absenteeism. This is true especially for those who could also benefit from after-school educationally enriching activities and informal learning opportunities outside. In other words, adding teaching time may quickly reach a point of diminishing or negative, marginal returns.

Regardless of their effectiveness, policies that extend students’ instruction time consume resources that could be spent on other school inputs. Proponents of extending teaching time have to show its positive effect on students, but also that this approach is more effective than investing in other interventions, such as providing teachers with additional training or reducing class sizes.

More ways to stretch time

Extending the length of the school day is just one of many ways to increase teaching time. Others include adding more days of teaching to the school calendar, or providing separate after-school and holiday programmes, which have been happening for matric students in South Africa. The way in which additional teaching time is distributed over the school year affects pupils, parents and teachers alike, and each approach has advantages and drawbacks.

Shortening the long school holidays has also been proposed as a potentially effective means to tackle the relative or absolute learning loss that some students experience during long breaks from school.

Again, in the longer run, shorter breaks may lead to more fatigue among both pupils and teachers and could reduce the attractiveness of working in schools. In addition, keeping schools open during the holidays may mean increased staff and operating costs.

Longer school days may provide teachers with more flexibility in designing their lesson plans and the opportunity to cover aspects of the curriculum in greater depth. However, students may struggle to remain focused in the afternoons. Extended school days also reduce the time students can spend with their families and friends or engage in other after-school activities.

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Like the extension of the school year, longer school days do have cost implications for keeping school buildings open longer and paying teachers and other staff members for their time.

From an economic point of view, having children at school for longer increases parents’ participation in the labour market and solves childcare challenges for them.

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Direct comparisons of the cost involved in extending the school year versus the school day are hard to find and rarely consider the costs borne by different stakeholders. One study found that extending the school day is usually cheaper than extending the school year.

Investigating the relative efficacy of lengthening the school year and lengthening the school day is highly relevant for policymakers in South Africa considering increasing teaching time. A better understanding could enable us to raise student achievement by rearranging time away from a longer school year and towards a longer school day, or vice versa.

Positive results

In an extensive study in the US, researchers found that longer school days improved students’ self-perceptions as well as their connection to school. They also found evidence of a reduction in problematic behaviour, particularly if programmes followed a set of effective practices that were sequenced, active, focused and explicit.

The researchers also noted that there is a risk that lengthening the school day and reducing students’ leisure time could lead to exhaustion, particularly if the added time is dedicated to high-intensity teaching.

Longer school days can also keep students busy and supervised during times when they might otherwise engage in risky behaviour or criminal activities. Following the school day extension in Chile, for example, “72% of parents at participating high schools reported that their children spent less time watching TV and 52% reported that they spent less time on street corners”.

Researchers also found that the shift from half-day to full-day schooling in Chile was associated with a drop in teen pregnancies among poor families. Similar results were seen in Colombia, where the attendance of full-day schooling (seven hours a day), as opposed to half-day schooling (four hours a day), was associated with a reduction in teenage pregnancy in urban schools.

The evidence regarding the effects of school attendance on crime is mixed. In Chile, full-day schooling appears to have caused a drop in the rates of juvenile property crimes and violence. Similarly, switching from a half-day to a full-day schedule appears to have reduced crime rates around schools in the Colombian capital, Bogotá.

But don’t get too excited by these findings, as another study found that young people engaged in fewer property crimes but more violent crimes on school days – noting the role that social interactions around schools can play in the occurrence of violence. However, the OCED notes that this does not preclude longer school days from reducing criminal activity through other mechanisms in the long run.

In Portugal, the introduction of full-time school did not change the number of regular teaching hours per week as stipulated in the curriculum. Instead, the schedule required schools to remain open until at least 5.30pm, to offer educational activities for a minimum of eight hours per day, and to provide an extracurricular programme in addition to instruction time in the curriculum.

The reform maintained the equivalent of five hours of teaching per day and added on average around one hour per day for enrichment activities, as well as the time for lunch.

The OECD paper states: “Countries need to reflect carefully about their goals and objectives for lengthening the school day to inform how the additional time at school should be used. In some contexts, it has been unclear how to use the additional time at school and different stakeholders may have different priorities, which can complicate the achievement of set policy goals.”

Extending the school day impacts on teachers, parents and students in different ways. In the case of teachers, for example, the longer school days often require greater presence at school and challenge traditional ways of working. It may mean the hiring of new types of staff with different experiences and profiles, who can change the school’s organisation and culture.

The debate around school day extensions must consider how such a change would affect different stakeholders’ communities; it must involve them in the design and implementation through extensive and continuous consultation processes, both at national and local levels.

Careful and thoughtful school day extension might just be what we need to really make a meaningful improvement in educational outcomes in South Africa. DM168

Dr Mark Potterton is principal of the primary school at Sacred Heart College in Johannesburg.

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Paul T says:

    I’m no expert but I was led to believe that Finland is #1 in the world for school performance with no homework for younger grades and no extension to school days. I can imagine that in poorer communities where there may not be adequate after school care, keeping kids in school may lead to less undesirable behaviour, but this sounds to me more like better supervision and healthier entertainment options rather than more teaching.

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