Length of the school day: Impetus warns against squandering new education catch up budget on unproven intervention

  • Schools decide the length of their day, meaning some children are receiving 8 hours and 20 mins fewer hours of classroom time per week than their peers 
  • Yet, there is insufficient evidence to suggest more time in the classroom improves results, with wide variation between schools with the same length of day
  • Schools are getting an extra £4.7bn by 2024-25, with nearly £2bn of new funding to help schools and colleges to recover from the pandemic, but that’s less than £500 of recovery funding for each child in England, compared with £1,800 in the US and £2,100 in the Netherlands
  • The Department for Education must prioritise spending the catch up budget on proven interventions that will benefit the most disadvantaged pupils, and tracking data to inform policy decisions

Despite months of discussion about the learning loss caused by the pandemic, and with catch up costs estimated at £13.5 billion, the £5bn allocated in the Budget is a significant under-investment in the nation’s school pupils, and particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds

With education catch up high on the agenda, an additional 30 minutes classroom time has been touted as a solution to helping students mitigate the learning lost as a result of the pandemic.  But in our report ‘Time Well Spent?’ we analysed the length of the school day across a random sample of schools across England and found insufficient evidence of its impact on education outcomes to justify a large scale investment in extending it.

English schools have autonomy over their schedule and the report found that the length of the school day varies by up to 1 hour 45 minutes of teaching time each day – some pupils are receiving 8 hours and 20 minutes more classroom time every week. Despite that, there is little correlation between classroom hours and pupil attainment. In fact, the analysis showed as great variation in outcomes between schools that have the same length of day, as those with different lengths of day. 

The finding was the same when measuring length of the school day and attainment against the socio-economic demographic of the school – calculating the number of pupils eligible for Free School Meals (FSM).  Again, there was as great variation between schools that have the same length of day than those with different lengths of day. 

While there appears little correlation between the length of the school day and attainment at Key Stage 2 – up to the end of Primary school, it does have a bigger impact at Key Stage 4, for all students including those from disadvantaged backgrounds. But, again, there was great variation between schools with different lengths of school day. 

These findings suggest that, whilst the length of the day may be significant, what schools do with this time is just as important.  

Only by understanding what makes an impact on learning, can effective policy be implemented.  Before the pandemic the attainment gap between young people from disadvantaged backgrounds and their better off peers was 27.1%pts.  Following the months of disruption that particularly affected young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, there are very real fears that the gap has widened.

Key findings:

  • There is no standard length of the school day in English schools: Some pupils are receiving 1 hour and 45 minutes more classroom time every day. That’s 332.5 hours over the course of a school year.
  • School days span a broad range: School start times range from 8am to 9:20am and finish times range between 2:15pm and 4:25pm. Lengths of the school day range from 6 hours to 7 hours and 40 minutes including breaks. Lengths of the school week range from 30 hours to 37 hours 30 minutes in total, breaking down to a range of 25 hours to 33 hours and 20 mins of classroom time.
  • The variation in outcomes between schools that have the same length of day are as great as those with different lengths of day, including for FSM pupils: There’s no clear correlation between the length of the school day and better outcomes for pupils nor between the length of the school day and the demographic makeup of the school body.
  • The length of the school day appears to have a bigger impact on attainment at KS4, particularly with disadvantaged students: We found correlations of 0.49 for both disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged students’ attainment and length of the school day, and a correlation of 0.28 between length of the day and the attainment gap. Within these findings on KS4 attainment, however, the pattern of great variation between schools with the same length of day continues, in some cases by up to 40%pts.
  • Data on the length of the school day and its links to attainment is sorely lacking: The Department for Education should prioritise tracking data on the length of the school day and its link to attainment to better inform policy decisions.

Eleanor Harrison, CEO of Impetus said:  

The new Education Secretary has pledged to be led by the evidence and relentlessly focus on ‘what works’.  What is clear from our research is that it is the quality rather than the quantity of teaching time that matters.

"Catch up funding is vital and should be spent on evidence-based interventions. While an extension of the school day may make policy sense in terms of offering more contact time, extra-curricular activities or improving wellbeing- it should not be hailed as the silver bullet for education catch up. 

"In order to best serve pupils, the Department for Education must prioritise spending the catch up budget on proven interventions that will benefit the most disadvantaged pupils, and invest more in gathering data to better inform policy making.

The cost of proven interventions

Impetus estimates that the cost of adding 30 minutes to the school day would cost £2.7 billion a year, but the data does not confirm that such a measure would positively impact pupil attainment.

Rather, the government should focus on evidence-based, targeted interventions to support those who have fallen furthest behind.

  • Tutoring: For £848 million, the most disadvantaged students could be provided with 12 hours of small group tuition, which can result in four month’s additional progress over a year. For all pupils in England the cost would be £3.6 billion.
  • Oracy: Putting oracy support in all schools would cost £55 million and could support pupils to make approximately five months additional progress over a year.
  • Engagement: For £1.4 billion secondary school pupils from the most disadvantaged backgrounds could benefit from social and emotional learning approaches which can result in four months’ additional progress in academic outcomes over the course of an academic year.

Helena is the Policy and Public Affairs Officer at Impetus

Find out more