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.