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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Letter from Donetsk: ice cream, bustling bars and missiles in eastern Ukraine

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it.

Eighty-eight year-old Nadya Moroz stares through the taped-up window of her flat in Donetsk, blown in by persistent bombing. She wonders why she abandoned her peaceful village for a “better life” in Donetsk with her daughter, just months before war erupted in spring 2014.

Nadya is no stranger to upheaval. She was captured by the Nazis when she was 15 and sent to shovel coal in a mine in Alsace, in eastern France. When the region was liberated by the Americans, she narrowly missed a plane taking refugees to the US, and so returned empty-handed to Ukraine. She never thought that she would see fighting again.

Now she and her daughter Irina shuffle around their dilapidated flat in the front-line district of Tekstilshchik. Both physically impaired, they seldom venture out.

The highlight of the women’s day is the television series Posledniy Yanychar (“The Last Janissary”), about an Ottoman slave soldier and his dangerous love for a free Cossack girl.

They leave the dog-walking to Irina’s daughter, Galya, who comes back just in time. We turn on the TV a few minutes before two o’clock to watch a news report on Channel One, the Russian state broadcaster. It shows a montage of unnerving images: Nato tanks racing in formation across a plain, goose-stepping troops of Pravy Sektor (a right-wing Ukrainian militia) and several implicit warnings that a Western invasion is nigh. I wonder how my hosts can remain so impassive in the face of such blatant propaganda.

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian-backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it. If the TV doesn’t get you, the print media, radio and street hoardings will. Take a walk in the empty central district of the city and you have the creeping sense of being transported back to what it must have been like in the 1940s. Posters of Stalin, with his martial gaze and pomaded moustache, were taboo for decades even under the Soviets but now they grace the near-empty boulevards. Images of veterans of the 1941-45 war are ubiquitous, breast pockets ablaze with medals. Even the checkpoints bear the graffiti: “To Berlin!” It’s all inching closer to a theme-park re-enactment of the Soviet glory years, a weird meeting of propaganda and nostalgia.

So completely is the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in thrall to Russia that even its parliament has passed over its new flag for the tricolour of the Russian Federation, which flutters atop the building. “At least now that the municipal departments have become ministries, everyone has been promoted,” says Galya, wryly. “We’ve got to have something to be pleased about.”

The war in the Donbas – the eastern region of Ukraine that includes Donetsk and Luhansk – can be traced to the street demonstrations of 2013-14. The former president Viktor Yanukovych, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, had refused to sign an agreement that would have heralded closer integration with the EU. In late 2013, protests against his corrupt rule began in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”) in Kyiv, as well as other cities. In early 2014 Yanukovych’s security forces fired on the crowds in the capital, causing dozens of fatalities, before he fled.

Putin acted swiftly, annexing Crimea and engineering a series of “anti-Maidans” across the east and south of Ukraine, bussing in “volunteers” and thugs to help shore up resistance to the new authority in Kyiv. The Russian-backed rebels consolidated their power base in Donetsk and Luhansk, where they established two “independent” republics, the DPR and its co-statelet, the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). Kyiv moved to recover the lost territories, sparking a full-scale war that raged in late 2014 and early 2015.

Despite the so-called “peace” that arrived in autumn 2015 and the beguiling feeling that a certain normality has returned – the prams, the ice creams in the park, the bustling bars – missiles still fly and small-arms fire frequently breaks out. You can’t forget the conflict for long.

One reminder is the large number of dogs roaming the streets, set free when their owners left. Even those with homes have suffered. A Yorkshire terrier in the flat next door to mine started collecting food from its bowl when the war began and storing it in hiding places around the flat. Now, whenever the shelling starts, he goes to his caches and binge-eats in a sort of atavistic canine survival ritual.

Pet shops are another indicator of the state of a society. Master Zoo in the city centre has an overabundance of tropical fish tanks (too clunky to evacuate) and no dogs. In their absence, the kennels have been filled with life-size plastic hounds under a sign strictly forbidding photography, for reasons unknown. I had to share my rented room with a pet chinchilla called Shunya. These furry Andean rodents, fragile to transport but conveniently low-maintenance, had become increasingly fashionable before the war. The city must still be full of them.

The bombing generally began “after the weekends, before holidays, Ukraine’s national days and before major agreements”, Galya had said. A new round of peace talks was about to start, and I should have my emergency bag at the ready. I shuddered back up to the ninth floor of my pitch-dark Tekstilshchik tower block. Shunya was sitting quiet and unruffled in his cage, never betraying any signs of stress. Free from Russian television, we girded ourselves for the night ahead.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war