Longer school days, shorter holidays - what's the evidence behind Michael Gove's plans?

19 April 2013

"In order to reach those levels of achievement a higher level of effort is expected on behalf of students, parents and teachers. School days are longer, school holidays are shorter."

Michael Gove (quoted in the Guardian), 18 April 2013

"Teachers and pupils already spend longer hours in the classroom than most countries and also have some of the shortest summer holidays."

Christine Blower, General Secretary of the National Union of Teachers (quoted in the Guardian)

At yesterday's Spectator's Schools Revolution conference in London, Education Secretary Michael Gove caused a stir by proposing that England's school children spend more time at their desks. The aim: for English schools to be more competitive at an international level, in particular compared to "East Asian" schools. The plan: increase teaching hours and decrease the time off for pupils.

Around 70% of secondary and 30% of primary schools in England are responsible for setting their own term dates

However, on average, under the current system the school year is 190 days (38 weeks) long. Pupils get around six weeks off in summer, two weeks at Christmas and Easter and three half-term breaks lasting a week each. Including weekends and bank holidays, that's a total of 175 days off.

Currently in England there are no legal requirements for the length of the school day, though they usually run from around 9am to 3-3.30pm.

Michael Gove reportedly said that "in the most successful East Asian education systems.. school days are longer, school holidays are shorter." Christine Blower, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, told the Guardian that Gove was "making policy up on the hoof," without regard for the evidence. "Teachers and pupils already spend longer hours in the classroom than most countries and also have some of the shortest summer holidays," she said.

Is she right? How do we compare to other large economies?

To find out, we asked the Department for Education for more information on the educational systems cited by Michael Gove - "Hong Kong, Singapore and other East Asian economies" - but are yet to receive a response. So we looked at the OECD's 2012 Education at a Glance report which, though thorough, doesn't cover Hong Kong and Singapore, but does examine other east Asian countries such as China, Japan, Indonesia and Korea (highlighted in blue).


The differences between the education systems is stark if we consider school days. As previously mentioned, our school year is 190 days long, 3 days more than the OECD average.

Japanese, Korean and Indonesian education system top the league when it comes to the number of (primary) school days with, respectively 201220 and 244 days of school.

Of course this doesn't tell us much about whether or not more days at school translates into better pupil attainment.

Let's have a look at overall school hours per year. 

School hours

Looking at data form the OECD report, we find that, though compulsory teaching hours per year vary at different age levels, the English education system places itself well above the OECD average ad above the east Asian countries we've looked at. 

So overall it appears that east Asian children - for the countries for which the OECD have data - have shorter school days, but more of them.

Science and Maths

Michael Gove said that what he particularly admired in the Asian education systems is that "expectations of mathematical knowledge or of scientific knowledge at every stage are more demanding than in this country."  

The OECD gathers data on teaching time per subject as a percentage of total compulsory teaching hours. The results vary considerably depending on what subject and level we're considering. Of course, more hours dedicated to science and maths don't necessarily mean more is expected of school children. 

The data shows us that when it comes to the teaching of science to 9-11 year olds, England is on a par with Indonesia, with 12% of hours dedicated to this subject, towards the top of the OECD league. The hours dedicated to science increase to 13% once the pupils turn 12, remaining above everyone else.

English children aged 9 to 11 spend 13% of all teaching hours learning about maths, the same as their Korean counterparts. This places them towards the bottom of the league, below both the OECD and EU21 average of 16% hours. English pupils work a bit more than other east Asian children once they turn 12, but they're still below the OECD average of 13%.

Do more and longer school day mean better educated children?

Two separate studies conducted by the London School of Economics shed light on the impact that the length of the school year and the school day has on pupils' performances.

A 2006 study by Jorn-Steffen Pischke found that short school years "increase grade repetition in primary school" and lead to "fewer students attending higher secondary school tracks." However there was another interesting finding: short school years have no adverse effect on earnings and employment later in life.

The second study, published in 2010 and authored by Victor Levy, found that long teaching hours have positive and significant effect on test scores, and in particular "on average an increase of one hour of instruction per week in math, science or language raises the test score in these subjects by 0.15 of a standard deviation of the within student distribution of test scores." 

Michael Gove also argues that the move might close the attainment gap between rich and poor students, as longer school days might benefit children from poorer backgrounds who are less likely than to receive additional support at home.

So while Christine Blower is right that England is above the OECD average in terms of the number of hours pupils spend in the classroom, there is also evidence to suggest that Michael Gove might have a point that increasing the number of teaching hours and shortening the school holidays could improve pupil performance.

We hope to update this article with more information on Hong Kong and Singapore once the Department for Education gets back to us. 


Flickr image courtesy of Norm Wright

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