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England schools set for minimum week length in new rules

All schools in Eng­land will have to open for at least 32.5 hours a week, under government plans due to be publis­hed this week.

The length of the school day is cur­r­ent­ly deci­ded by the head­tea­cher with the gover­ning body in England.

The rule – which starts next Sep­tem­ber – will hit the 14% of schools thought to be open fewer than 32 hours a week.

Edu­ca­ti­on secreta­ry Nad­him Zaha­wi said he wan­ted “strong schools with gre­at tea­chers for every child”.

Some 70% of schools are alrea­dy open bet­ween 32 and 35 hours a week, with a fur­ther 9% open for longer.

The data comes from a July 2021 government sur­vey which asked schools how many hours a week pupils in years 3 or 9 had to be in school. About 6% of schools did not teach pupils in this age bracket.

The government said the chan­ge would ensu­re child­ren had a fair chan­ce to enga­ge with a ran­ge of sub­jects – as well as any catch-up sup­port – whe­re­ver they lived.

The 32.5 hour school week is equi­va­lent to 08:45 to 15.15, with the government arguing that a child with a school day shor­ter by 20 minu­tes a day would lose two weeks of schoo­ling over the cour­se of a year.

But edu­ca­ti­on uni­ons said the new requi­re­ment would make litt­le dif­fe­rence, as most schools alrea­dy met the threshold.

They sug­gested schools that did not could be in rural are­as which face grea­ter trans­port challenges.

Mr Zaha­wi is due to set out the government’s wider plans for schools in Eng­land this week in the White Paper, along­side a review of the sup­port avail­ab­le for pupils with spe­cial edu­ca­tio­nal needs and disa­bi­li­ties (SEND).

The plans inclu­de a tar­get for 90% of pupils lea­ving pri­ma­ry school to be at the expec­ted level for maths and Eng­lish by 2030.

In the latest avail­ab­le figu­res from just befo­re the pan­de­mic, 65% of pupils in year 6 reached that level.

Spea­king about the pro­po­sals on the BBC’s Sunday Morning pro­gram­me, Mr Zaha­wi said the White Paper would also put an empha­sis on “strong mul­ti-aca­de­my trusts”.

He said: “The evi­dence is clear that a fami­ly of schools that is real­ly tight­ly mana­ged, real­ly well sup­por­ted – espe­cial­ly through Covid – has deli­ve­r­ed bet­ter edu­ca­tio­nal out­co­mes for children.

So strong – and I under­line strong – mul­ti-aca­de­my trusts is the infra­st­ruc­tu­re we need to com­ple­te and deliver.”

Labour shadow edu­ca­ti­on secreta­ry Brid­get Phil­ip­son said after two years of “pan­de­mic cha­os” and six years sin­ce the government’s last schools stra­te­gy, the plans would lea­ve par­ents, tea­chers and pupils ques­tio­ning “whe­re the ambi­ti­on for children’s future is”.

The Natio­nal Edu­ca­ti­on Union’s Kevin Court­ney said schools and pupils had been left “bat­te­red and brui­sed” by the pan­de­mic and a more sophisti­ca­ted approach was needed.

Paul Whiteman, of the head­tea­chers uni­on, the NAHT, said: “Sim­ply adding five or 10 minu­tes to a day is unli­kely to bring much, if any, benefit.”

Asked on Sunday Morning if he could gua­ran­tee that schools would never clo­se again in the way they did during lock­down, Mr Zaha­wi said; “I will do ever­ything in my power to make sure they don’t.”

He also said he would be open to inclu­ding the impact of lock­down on child­ren in the terms of refe­rence for the forth­co­m­ing government Covid inqui­ry – the draft terms of refe­rence cur­r­ent­ly do not men­ti­on schools or children.

He said: “I would be open. I think it’s important to learn the les­sons… the impact on edu­ca­ti­on and on health and well­being has been sub­stan­ti­al, which is why I think it was a mista­ke to clo­se schools – and we have to learn from tho­se mistakes”.

At one secon­da­ry school in Car­mar­t­henshire they know the strain of the pan­de­mic only too well.

The head­tea­cher at Ysgol Maes y Gwen­draeth has refer­red more staff for well­being sup­port in 12 mon­ths than in his first seven years in the post.

It is an illus­tra­ti­on of the pres­su­re on staff them­sel­ves while also sup­por­ting pupils through the pandemic.

In respon­se, the Welsh government is treb­ling fun­ding to sup­port tea­chers’ well­being and men­tal health to 1.25m.

At the secon­da­ry school in Cef­neit­hin, near Lla­nel­li, they have also seen an incre­a­se in pro­blems rela­ted to pupils’ wellbeing.

Head­tea­cher Wyn Evans said the dis­rup­ti­on of the past two years had affec­ted dif­fe­rent year groups in dif­fe­rent ways.

Youn­ger pupils have not been able to deve­lop friendship groups pro­per­ly, and so the­re are more argu­ments in the play­ground and online, while older pupils have mis­sed out on vital exam readiness.

Covid has cer­tain­ly crea­ted an incre­a­se in the pro­blems,” he said.

Some of the pro­blems have just been more of the same, for examp­le the fal­ling out bet­ween youn­ger pupils – there’s more of that type of incident.”

Very dark places’

But the­re are more serious issu­es too.

At the dar­kest end, pupils are in very dark pla­ces whe­re they poten­ti­al­ly are at risk or school cer­tain­ly feel they are at risk of self-harm and taking their own lives,” he said.

Staff are hea­ring things from pupils that they poten­ti­al­ly would­n’t have heard from the pupils in the past and are fin­ding qui­te distressing.”

As well as more refer­rals to occup­a­tio­nal health ser­vices, the school has allo­ca­ted a mem­ber of the pas­to­ral team to hold appoint­ments with staff as well as pupils.

The Welsh government said sup­port for staff men­tal health and well­being is incre­a­sing from 350,000 to 1.25 mil­li­on in 2022/23.

Over­all, it says, well­being fun­ding for pupils and staff has dou­bled sin­ce the start of the pan­de­mic to more than 12m.