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 is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.

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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.