The claim

“If we look at the length of the school day, the length of the summer holiday and we compare it to the extra tuition and support children are receiving elsewhere, then we already start with a significant handicap.”
Michael Gove, 18 April 2013

The background

Michael Gove was rarely out of the headlines this week after making a string of high-profile announcements and speeches.

The education secretary opened a debate about the length of the school day and summer holidays yesterday, saying: “We’ve noticed in Hong Kong and Singapore and other east Asian nations that expectations of mathematical knowledge or of scientific knowledge at every stage are more demanding than in this country.

“In order to reach those levels of achievement a higher level of effort is expected on behalf of students, parents and teachers. School days are longer, school holidays are shorter. The expectation is that to succeed, hard work is at the heart of everything.”

He added that some schools in England were already “recognising that we need to change the structure of the school term and in particular that it is poorer children that lose out from longer holidays.

Mr Gove is not alone in questioning the established school routine.

His suggestion that we change the shape of the school year echoed the words of US President Barack Obama, who said in 2009: “We can no longer afford an academic calendar designed when America was a nation of farmers who needed their children at home ploughing the land at the end of each day.”

It’s a global talking point, but the evidence that more hours in the classroom equals more academic success is decidedly mixed.

The analysis

According to the OECD, a major source of comparable statistics about life in the developed world, pupils in England already spend more hours in the classroom than children in most other advanced economies.

This table counts up the time spent on compulsory and non-compulsory subjects from seven to 14.

The OECD also produces figures for the amount of time spent on compulsory subjects alone, and produces an international league table of achievement after testing 15-year-olds from 65 countries in the core subjects of maths, reading and science.

At the age of 15, the average pupil in England gets 950 hours of compulsory education a year, according to the latest figures – more than the average for OECD countries (920) and the EU21 states (907).

English pupils scored significantly above average in science in the OECD’s international tests in 2009, but were almost exactly average in reading and maths.

The European countries in which children spend the longest hours in school – Spain, Italy and France – tended to score lower than England.

The top performers in these PISA tests were Shanghai and Hong Kong (treated like separate countries because they are so much more economically advanced than the rest of China), Korea, Finland, Singapore, Canada, New Zealand, Japan and Australia.

The best-performing European countries included the Netherlands, Belgium, Norway, Estonia and Switzerland.

Some of the top performers worked longer hours on compulsory subjects: Korea, Australia, the Netherlands. Others spent less time in the classroom than in England but still did better in the tests: Canada, Finland, Norway.

Finland fascinates educationalists because it is so unusual: world-beating results from relatively few hours in the classroom. But we don’t know if the one causes the other. The country is an outlier in many other respects, with low levels of poverty and inequality, and virtually no private education.

For the east Asian top performers the data is frustratingly incomplete, with information about hours spent at school in Hong Kong, Singapore, Shanghai and Japan missing.

The partial data we have suggests that Japanese pupils spent less time in school than their English pen-pals.

Anecdotal evidence would point to long hours of learning in Singapore and China, but without hard data all we can say at the moment is that there is no simple pattern here that says children who work longer hours do better in school.

This data compares the total hours worked each year. It doesn’t tell us which countries have more hours because of longer days or shorter holidays, or whether it makes a difference to the children.

Academic evidence from individual countries tends to be mixed too. Studies of schools in the American states Hawaii and Michigan found no relationship between total hours and student performance.

But a Harvard economist who looked at New York charter schools (similar to British academies) found that adding time did have a measurable positive impact.

The verdict

Meta-analyses of the data tend to show a small positive correlation between increasing school hours and achievement, particularly for pupils at risk of failing. It’s unclear whether the improvements would be worth the money we would have to spend on extending school hours.

The charity Education Endowment Foundation concludes: “Most of the studies find evidence of improved learning compared to shorter days or school years, but this is usually quite small and gains are not consistent across all studies. Unsurprisingly, the amount of improved learning appears to depend heavily on how the time is used and which aspects of teaching and learning are increased.

“Evidence suggests that it is likely to be cheaper and more efficient to focus on using existing school time more effectively before considering extending school time.”

Interestingly, despite Mr Gove’s assertion that “some of the best schools in the country are moving to a longer school day”, the evidence here is weak too. In a survey of new academies last year, only 9 per cent said they had taken advantage of their academy status to make changes to the length of days or terms.

By Patrick Worrall