Saturday 22 February 2014

Extending the School Day?

This half term has given me a real opportunity to reflect on what education is and what it could be.  Over the past three days, I have taken part in three very different activities with my daughters Rosa (3 years) and Clara (10 months).

On Wednesday, we went to the Oxfordshire Museum in Woodstock to take part in an art session based on Anglo-Saxon artifacts.  The session began in the exhibition.  After making sketches of several artifacts, we went through to the education room where we created family banners using printing with ink, plaiting wool and beads and designing and making broaches using wafer-thin copper sheets.  It was an amazing activity and a wealth of knowledge was shared about the designs and techniques the Anglo-Saxons would have used.  The whole activity was well-managed, was accessible and engaging for both of our children and us (admittedly Clara mainly played with the beads and tried to eat things) and had a real sense of educational value.  We all came away enthused, having learned something and vowing to go back again soon.

On Thursday, we went to Games Galore at the Ashmolean Museum where Rosa made a snake game based on Mehen, played by the Ancient Egyptians.  The activity was simple, but effective and was one of an amazing array of activities taking place throughout the museum.  It was great to see so many children learning not only the history of games in ancient civilisations but also a range of mathematical, geometrical and artistic skills through the various activities.  Again, the educational value of these activities was obviously apparent.

This evening, we went for a 'stargazing' walk at the Earth Trust.  All four of us set off in the dark and the mud,  coated head-to-toe in waterproofs and armed with torches, to explore the Wittenham Clumps at night.  We were treated to a circular tour of the clumps and their nightlife as well as a tour of the stars visible and the various constellations they make up.  Rosa was absolutely entranced and, like me, her favourite part was where we all had to find a quiet spot in the forest, turn off our torches and spend two minutes in dark silence.  It was amazing how many animals and other natural sounds we heard, all of which our guide was able to name.

So, what's all this got to do with education?

Well, each of these activities was certainly a learning experience.  It really brought home to me the huge range of different activities which form part of education in its broadest sense.  Not all of these fit neatly into the school day and indeed not all of them should.  Others could easily but are forced out by the pressure to focus on the 'core' subjects to the exclusion of all else.

This got me thinking about the debate around extending the school day.  I have to say, I have huge sympathy with the idea that schools could and should offer more outside of their current hours. But I think this has to be based on certain principles:

  1. Extended schooling should not simply mean more of the same.  It should be an opportunity to partake in different experiences.  It should be about enrichment through music, sport, drama and all the other things which have been increasingly pushed out or cut by the government.
  2. Not all of this should necessarily take place on site.  None of the activities above would have worked as well divorced from their settings and transported into the classroom.  One would have been impossible.
  3. It should be about bringing new resources in to benefit our children, not simply stretching the ones we already have, particularly in terms of staff.  Any plan for extended opportunities is doomed to failure if it simply involves squeezing more out of already overworked teachers and TAs.
  4. Most importantly - it should not exclude parents.  We should be providing opportunities for family learning, where children and their parents can take part in activities together.  If we are simply offering cheap childcare so parents can be pressured into working longer hours and spending less time with their children, we are doing nothing to benefit those parents or the future generation.
Extending the range of opportunities available to children and families through their local school can only be a good thing but it seems clear that this is not the model the current government has in mind.  Let's hope we can change that.

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