Does Michael Gove think he can extend school hours through sheer force of personality?

There are a lot of different factors to consider before the school day can be extended – the type of activities on offer, how you're staffing them, whether more affluent parents should pay – but the education secretary hasn't been clear on any of the deta

Last week, the world of education policy was momentarily agog, aghast and agother things when a former government adviser proposed radically ramping up the number of hours that kids spend in school.

“From September 2016,” KPMG partner Paul Kirby suggested on his blog, “all state funded schools will, by law, provide 45 hours of education per week for 45 weeks of the year”. This, he argued, would simultaneously slash childcare costs and do wonders for the intellect of the nation’s youth. The plan was so good, he suggested humbly, it might win somebody the next two elections.

The result was an almighty row, in which phrases like “Gradgrind” and “the death of childhood” abounded. What many of those attacking the plan seemed to miss, however, was that they might as well have been warning of the health hazards posed by unicorn dung. Both the brilliance of this plan, and the enormity of its downsides, are rendered entirely irrelevant by the fact it's just simply never going to happen. A radical increase in school hours would require a hefty increase in school funding. And, in case you haven’t noticed, public money is currently in rather short supply.

All this is worth bearing in mind when considering Michael Gove’s latest wheeze. He's often spoken of the benefits of longer school hours and shorter school holidays, and hoped that his brave new free schools would deliver on both counts. Until now, though, he’s not attempted to impose them on the majority of England’s schools.

On Monday, however, he made a rip-roaring speech in which, among other ideas, he suggested that he’d “like to see state schools offer a school day nine or ten hours long”. This, he argued, would create time for homework, music, sports and the like, and help close the gap between the private and state sectors.

And, at risk of saying something nice about the education secretary, there are worse ideas. Making more time for extra-curricular activities is a laudable goal. So is creating quiet study periods for kids whose family lives may not allow it at home. Done properly, extended schools might even cut the ever more horrendous childcare costs faced by working parents.

Read Gove’s speech carefully, though, and you’ll notice he hasn’t actually committed himself to any of this. Extended schools are something he’d like, not something he’s promised; longer school days are an ambition, not a policy.

If Gove is, for once, taking baby steps instead of charging full steam ahead, then questions over funding are surely a big reason why. Longer school hours means spending more money keeping buildings heated, lit, air-conditioned and so on. More importantly, it's a lot of extra time in which schools need to be staffed, and those staff will expect to be paid for their trouble: while many teachers will go above and beyond their contracted hours to deliver extracurricular activities, you can’t rely on that good will when rolling a policy out nationwide.

How much the resulting bill will come to would depend on a lot of different factors: the type of activities on offer, how you're staffing them, whether you'd get away with making more affluent parents pay for after school childcare, music lessons and so on. Attempts to create extended schools under the last Labour government, indeed, relied heavily on charging parents for such extras – yet a majority of schools still had to dig into their own funding, all the same. (This analysis from Policy Exchange has the details.) It's very difficult to see how longer school hours won't cost more than shorter ones.

Gove, to be fair, has all but admitted as much. In his speech he said he was “determined to ensure schools have access to the resources necessary to provide a more enriching day”; a couple of hours later he told the BBC’s World at One that he was confident the plan would win the support of the Treasury.

That, though, is a pretty hefty “if”. If this is a serious proposal, rather than an early piece of electioneering, there are, as best I can tell, three options. Either it needs new money. Or it requires cuts from elsewhere in the schools budget: in other words, it'll create losers, somewhere, and in all likelihood another almighty row.

Or, just maybe, Gove is assuming he can make this happen through sheer force of personality. It wouldn't be the first time.

Education Secretary Michael Gove. Photo: Getty

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. He is on Twitter, almost continously, as @JonnElledge.

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What I learnt when my wife and I went to Brexit: the Musical

This week in the media, from laughing as the world order crumbles to what Tristram Hunt got wrong – and Leicester’s big fall.

As my wife and I watched Brexit: the Musical, performed in a tiny theatre above a pub in London’s Little Venice, I thought of the American novelist Lionel Shriver’s comment on Donald Trump’s inauguration: “A sense of humour is going to get us through better than indignation.” It is an entertaining, engaging and amusing show, which makes the point that none of the main actors in the Brexit drama – whether supporters of Leave or Remain – achieved quite what they had intended. The biggest laugh went to the actor playing Boris Johnson (James Sanderson), the wannabe Tory leader who blew his chance. The mere appearance of an overweight man of dishevelled appearance with a mop of blond hair is enough to have the audience rolling in the aisles.

The lesson we should take from Brexit and from Trump’s election is that politicians of all shades, including those who claim to be non-political insurgents, have zero control of events, whether we are talking about immigration, economic growth or the Middle East. We need to tweak Yeats’s lines: the best may lack all conviction but the worst are full not so much of passionate intensity – who knows what Trump or Johnson really believe? – as bumbling incompetence. The sun will still rise in the morning (as
Barack Obama observed when Trump’s win became evident), and multi­national capital will still rule the world. Meanwhile, we may as well enjoy the show.

 

Danger of Donald

Nevertheless, we shouldn’t deny the risks of having incompetents in charge. The biggest concerns Trump’s geopolitical strategy, or rather his lack of one. Great power relations since 1945 have been based on mutual understanding of what each country wants to achieve, of its red lines and national ambitions. The scariest moments come when one leader miscalculates how another will react. Of all figures in recent history, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, with his flamboyant manner and erratic temperament, was probably the most similar to Trump. In 1962, he thought President Kennedy, inexperienced and idealistic, would tolerate Soviet missiles in Cuba. He was wrong and the world only narrowly avoided nuclear war.

How would Trump respond to a Russian invasion of the Baltic states? Will he recognise Taiwan as an independent country? Will he scrap Obama’s deal with Iran and support a pre-emptive strike against its nuclear ambitions? Nobody knows, probably not even Trump. He seems to think that keeping your options open and your adversaries guessing leads to “great deals”. That may work in business, in which the worst that can happen is that one of your companies goes bankrupt – an outcome of which Americans take a relaxed view. In international relations, the stakes are higher.

 

Right job, wrong time

I rather like Tristram Hunt, who started contributing to the New Statesman during my editorship. He may be the son of a life peer and a protégé of Peter Mandelson, but he is an all-too-rare example of a politician with a hinterland, having written a biography of Engels and a study of the English Civil War and presented successful TV documentaries. In a parallel universe, he could have made an inspirational Labour leader,
a more thoughtful and trustworthy version of Tony Blair.

No doubt, having resigned his Stoke-on-Trent Central seat, he will make a success of his new job as director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. If nothing else, he will learn a little about the arts of management and leadership. But isn’t this the wrong way round? Wouldn’t it be better if people first ran museums or other cultural and public institutions and then carried such experience into parliament and government?

 

Pointless palace

When the Palace of Westminster was largely destroyed by fire in 1834, thousands gathered to enjoy the spectacle. Thomas Carlyle noted that the crowd “whew’d and whistled when the breeze came as if to encourage it” and that “a man sorry I did not anywhere see”.

Now, with MPs reportedly refusing to move out to allow vital renovation work from 2023, we can expect a repeat performance. Given the unpopularity of politicians, public enthusiasm may be even greater than it was two centuries ago. Yet what is going through MPs’ minds is anyone’s guess. Since Theresa May refuses them a vote on Brexit, prefers the Foreign Office’s Lancaster House as the location to deliver her most important speech to date and intends to amend or replace Brussels-originated laws with ministerial orders under “Henry VIII powers”, perhaps they have concluded that there’s no longer much point to the place.

 

As good as it gets

What a difference a year makes. In January 2016, supporters of Leicester City, my home-town team, were beginning to contemplate the unthinkable: that they could win football’s Premier League. Now, five places off the bottom, they contemplate the equally unthinkable idea of relegation.

With the exception of one player, N’Golo Kanté (now at Chelsea), the team is identical to last season’s. So how can this be? The sophisticated, mathematical answer is “regression to the mean”. In a league where money, wages and performance are usually linked rigidly, a team that does much better than you’d predict one season is likely to do much worse the next. I’d suggest something else, though. For those who won last season’s title against such overwhelming odds, life can never be as good again. Anything short of winning the Champions League (in which Leicester have so far flourished) would seem an anti­climax. In the same way, the England cricket team that won the Ashes in 2005 – after the Australians had dominated for 16 years – fell apart almost as soon as its Trafalgar Square parade was over. Beating other international teams wouldn’t have delivered the same adrenalin surge.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era