Keeping pupils in school for longer lessons would not be enough to overcome the gaps in their learning caused by Covid disruption, according to research by a University of Cambridge academic.
With the government in England considering extended school hours as part of its catch-up plans, the research found that schools already timetabling longer teaching time in subjects such as English and maths see only modest improvements that may not justify the extra cost.
The British Psychological Society said that instead the additional time would be better spent allowing children to play, socialise and engage in activities such as music, crafts and sports that were also missed out on while schools were closed to most pupils during the lockdowns.
So far the government’s catch-up efforts have been aimed at creating a national tutoring programme, offering small group and one-to-one tuition. But MPs report that more radical plans for a school day running from 8am to 5pm or even 6pm with voluntary attendance have been considered, as well as funding for at least 30 more minutes of compulsory lessons.
But the study by Vaughan Connolly, a researcher at Cambridge’s education department, suggests that only small gains could be expected from longer time spent in lessons.
The study used timetable data gathered from 2,815 schools in England to look at the connection between changes to the amount of teaching time that pupils received in English, maths, science and humanities, and their academic progress measured by GCSE results.
The results showed small but noticeable progress for an additional hour of teaching each week, measured in terms of attainment over five years between the end of primary school and the end of key stage four when GCSEs are usually taken.
Connolly said: “The data suggests that, on average, an investment in more instruction time for all would lead to small improvements in academic progress, but the balance of international evidence suggests that it would be far more worthwhile for education recovery planners to look at other interventions first, which could be accommodated by rebalancing the school day.”
One more productive method, according to Connolly, would be to support and develop pupils’ metacognitive skills, sometimes known as “learning to learn”, by giving students strategies for planning, monitoring and evaluating their own learning.
The study also found that extended teaching was some help in closing the attainment gap between students on free school meals and others. Up to an hour extra each week in English reduced the gap between the groups by about 6%, while a similar amount of extra maths reduced the gap by about 8%.
Vivian Hill, the vice-chair of the British Psychological Society’s educational and child psychology division, said: “If the school day is to be extended, it’s important that we don’t just fill those extra hours with more and more formal teaching sessions.
“It is about developing a balanced offer and recognising that learning is a dynamic process. We urge the government to use this as an opportunity to re-set the approach we take to education and our children within schools.
“Children don’t have to be sat at desks in a classroom to learn. Giving them space to play sports, paint, try different crafts and socialise will all lead to learning and the development of important life skills.”