It has been rumoured that Michael Gove, the Minister for Education, is looking to follow the lead of Far Eastern nations to lengthen the school day and cut down on the amount of holiday we give our students in the UK. As an English teacher currently living in South Korea, I happen to have a front row seat to judge just how effective longer school days are and their advantages and disadvantages.
I have heard arguments on both ends of the spectrum from within the UK, from people that say that this is an essential change that needs to be made in order to be more competitive on the world stage and not to let Britain be overtaken by the Far Eatsern nations; and from those who say that longer days with less holiday will overly stress our students, take away from their life experience and stifle creativity. Both views seem a tad extreme to me and I think the answer lies somewhere in the middle of the two poles.
Overall, I am inclined to agree with Michael Gove that longer school days are needed, but I would not cut down the amount of holiday, especially the valuable 6 week summer holiday in the UK. I believe the proposed idea has secondary school students possibly staying in school until 6pm, and I think this is entirely reasonable. However, a longer time spent in school means that the government and the schools themselves have a greater responsibility on what they are teaching and how they are teaching and I have never been entirely convinced that the British education system is actually going in the right direction in this department.
You see, there is no doubt that spending more time at study does improve the level of knowledge you have, it is not simply about quality all the time. In South Korea, the quality of teaching I have witnessed is poor; it is overly didactic, boring, and completely devoid of any interaction whatsoever between teachers and students in the classroom. Lessons are a series of lectures with students simply listening and watching (and often sleeping). Students, however, spend all day studying. At the High school I am currently working at, students come to school at about 8am and leave at around 10.30pm. Children who are at middle and elementary schools often have things no easier because when their school day finishes at about 4pm they then go to a number of after school private academies, in which English, Maths, and Science are the most popular. These young students can spend up to 4 or 5 hours a night at these places after their school day and most give homework on top of this. I have always wondered how Korean students keep up. Because of all of this, though, their educational level is extremely high, much better than what I witnessed as a science teacher in the UK.
Korean students would love to finish their school day at 6pm and I think they could cope quite easily with this. It is simply nonsense to suggest that students in the UK would be over-burdened with stress because their day is longer. This sounds terrible for all the students of the UK, but it need not be. I have always wondered what on earth the point of homework ever was, why can’t students get all their work done at school? The extra 2 or 3 hours in the day could be used for this homework. Most of the evening in Korean high schools is spent doing ‘self-study’, and it is in this time when homework should be done. Homework at home is a waste of time for the majority of students because most just do it quickly and badly so they can go out and play with friends, watch TV or play computer games. There are too many distractions at home for worthwhile study. Have students do homework at school and they should have more focus, but they should also have much greater access to resources to enable them to complete their homework well; they will have access to computers, books, other school resources, and maybe most importantly of all, teacher’s guidance.
Perhaps more important than over-stressing students is not over-working teachers. Extra time for students at school should not mean more lessons for teachers, as I said the extra couple of hours should be free-study or self-study for students. This would also encourage them to work independently and take responsibility for their own education, something I think would be extremely valuable.
However, there must be a word of caution for longer school days. If the students are going to spend more time in school it becomes astronomically important that they are productive while they are there, otherwise we are infringing on their freedoms for very little positive gain. I am completely with those who are suspicious about education worldwide generally. Those that say we teach students in an uncreative way, teaching them only to be obedient and pass tests. Inspiration is also being lost in the overly-inflexible curriculums and the day to day bureacracy that teachers have to go through and this is especially true in my experience teaching in England. One of the saddest things is that school trips appear to be almost completely lost these days due to worries about anything unfortunate happening to the students and claims being made against school and teachers. Schools still often go to museums but nature trips or outdoor excursions to areas of natural beauty are very rare indeed and it is precisely these that would be most valuable, especially for an increasingly urbanised population and a planet with growing and troubling environmental issues. I have also mused about – in a globalised world – whether there could be some agreement between world governments to have regular exchanges of students between schools in other countries. I am unsure about how it would all be organised but I am palpably sure about the value of travel and cultural exchange with other cultures to the education of the young. Perhaps even internet classes with students from other countries if travel is too difficult? It is an avenue that may be worth pursuing.
In short, schools need to radically change the way they teach and be interesting and inpirational. Students need to be fascinated, and it is possible to do this, but not with all the restrictions the exam-based education system currently has. If one country in the world could take a punt and really go for it in this regard, I am sure they would show the way for everyone else to follow.
When it comes to lack of inspiration and excitement for learning, the Far East certainly tops the league tables on this point as commandingly as anything else. A longer school day is the only possible aspect about the Korean education system worth copying, possibly along with higher expectations of students, everything else should be completely ignored. Booksmarts and passing tests Koreans may be good at, but happy, efficient, and creative they are not. Many of them are a sad, depressed and oppressed bunch and there is a significant problem of student suicides in the country. If you only focus on their academic achievement in tests then everything looks rosy; if you focus on any other measure of achievement, creativity or well-being things don’t look quite so good. Korean students lives are dominated by their teachers and parents in a race to the best universities and the best jobs and many suffer through their childhood only to fall short, to feel like failures and to feel like they have let their families down also. This is not a situation worth imitating.
It, of course, need not be this way in the UK. Keep the school holidays, end the stupidity of homework and students staying at school until 6pm will not significantly take away any of their current freedoms. Make sure we teach quality and the Western high regard for individuality and creativity will trump the Far Eastern values of hard-work and conformity. The problem at the moment with Western schools and students is that we have all forgotten what hard work truly is and have the lowest of the low expectations of young people just so we can tell them how well they are doing all the time. Children are stronger that we think, they can take a bit of graft and criticism, however, children are undoubtedly weaker than they think in the Far East; their spirit can be broken and the Korean education system achieves this nicely. It is time we all learned from each other and found the reasonable middle-ground.