Schools have been forced to send children home early – and now poorer kids will suffer the most
At the heart of the 4.5 day school week is the erosion of education as a public good and a basic right for all
Ten years into austerity, schools have found countless ways to get by on squeezed budgets, from banning colour photocopies to making staff redundant. For years it has been a delicate balancing act – what can we get rid of while minimising damage to our pupils? But there comes a point when there is nothing left to give.
Over 200 headteachers across the country are now turning to a new way to save money: reducing the length of the school week. Pupils are sent home at lunch time on Friday. In place of a five-day school week, there is a 4.5 one instead.
Reducing the school week is set to save schools such as Bellfield Junior School in Birmingham around £50,000 a year. But what does a 4.5 day school week mean for pupils? And why are so many schools choosing to do it?
No headteacher would take the decision to reduce the school week lightly. If schools fulfil their purpose and enrich pupil’s lives, it is essential this service is not withdrawn – even partially. But, after years of real-terms funding cuts, many schools are finding it increasingly difficult to function.
Ultimately, the decision to reduce the school week is a choice to prioritise the quality of children’s time children in school over the quantity of it. In an interview with the BBC, the Bellfield headteacher said “We are on absolute minimum staffing levels for the needs of our children.” Better to meet the needs of your pupils 4.5 days a week, than fall short for five.
Yet it’s important not to romanticise the effect a shorter week will have during those 4.5 days. Many schools are making Monday-Thursday longer in order to partially compensate for leaving early on Friday – even though this can be highly counterproductive for younger children. Since pupils will still need to sit the same exams, the same curriculum will need to be squeezed into those 4.5 days – the usual pattern of arts and humanities being the first to go are likely to apply.
On Friday we had the arresting image of MP Jess Phillips' son doing his homework on the steps of No 10. But what will the Friday afternoon off actually mean for pupils? They can't all gather in Downing Street.
For an affluent middle-class family, it might become a slot for a music lesson or a game of tennis or even a session with a private tutor. Perhaps some parents will be able to afford the luxury of taking the afternoon off to spend quality time with their child.
However, for the child of a single mum who is working overtime to make ends meet, the picture will be very different. It might also be different for any of the 4.5 million children growing up in poverty – for the families who can’t afford to heat their homes in winter let alone pay for them to do extracurricular activities.
A good school is an (albeit limited) insurance factor. It provides children with a place to feel safe and valued no matter what is happening at home. It provides children with access to books and rich discussion, even if they come from a family where these are scarce.
When thinking about the impact of a 4.5 school week on the children I have taught, I worry much more for some than others.
Often, the conversation around schooling is concerned with how best to optimise the education we deliver. Though we may have different priorities (knowledge or skills?) and believe in different strategies (academisation or local authority control?) we all agree that state education is a wonderful thing. Don’t we?
The depth of Conservative cuts to education suggests otherwise. A government that values education does not continue to slash budgets, despite warnings from teachers and parents that schools are at breaking point. It does not continue to proclaim the importance of education in giving young people their chance in life, while turning a blind eye to the way cuts have bitten into a broad and balanced curriculum, into provision for special educational needs and disability and now even the full five-day week.
At the heart of the 4.5 day school week is the erosion of education as a public good and a basic right for all. It is a cry to give schools the funding they need once more. Because if cuts continue, what sacrifices will we see headteachers making next?