What price might youngsters pay for a longer school day?

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Mental Health Awareness Week, which runs from May 16 to 22, is organised by the Mental Health Foundation and aims to generate awareness and debate about the issue. Two local Christian charities which work with youngsters are Crossways and Fegans. The Times asked Crossways’ Chris Munday and Fegans’ Ian Soars to share their thoughts on mental health and education.

The Government’s white paper Educational Excellence Everywhere outlines a vision for education over the next decade. While the issue of academies has been hotly debated (and, to a point, shelved) the pledge to extend the school day remains – and has largely gone unnoticed. That’s a pity, given the potential implications for schools, pupils and parents.

The Government will make funding available for 25 per cent of secondary schools (initially) to ‘extend their school day to include a wider range of activities, such as sport, arts and debating’.

There are, according to the Department of Education, two main reasons. “It’s about increasing standards and offering a broader choice as schools will have the ability to run more clubs,” explains a spokeswoman.

The lack of detail raises questions. Will the extra time be mandatory? How are schools supposed to use the time?

The White Paper contains a strong hint. “Our education system must compete with those around the world – because while we improve, so do they.”

It highlights that 17 per cent of UK students fail to reach ‘modern functional literacy’, compared to just 11 per cent in Canada.

Canada is an interesting comparison. It, like Finland, has a six-hour school day, yet both countries’ students do better than the UK – with one of the world’s longest days – in comparative tests for mathematics, English and science (Source: PISA/OECD).

So can we conclude that the Government will steer schools into extending lesson time? If so, teaching union NASUWT would be worried.

“That would raise concerns about pupils’ wellbeing. Teachers already work a long day, too, and have some of the highest rates of workplace stress,” it says.

Despite the uncertainty some schools, such as Tunbridge Wells’ St Gregory’s Catholic School, are enthusiastic.

The Head of School, Sean McQuillan, says: “We see this as a potentially positive initiative. St Gregory’s already provides a wide range of extra-curricular activities which are taken up voluntarily and these enhance the experience of the student.

“As a school we are fully engaged in providing a range of sporting activities and support girls and boys in gaining experience in a wide variety of musical, artistic and sporting opportunities.”

He adds: “The wellbeing of our students is of paramount importance to us and we use sports as a vehicle to encourage all our students in understanding and promoting a balanced, happy and healthy lifestyle.”

Fegans and Crossways Community agree, welcoming opportunities for children to enjoy more sport, cultural activities, social engagement and develop life skills, seeing these as a positive way of building confidence and self-esteem.

Nevertheless, we remain concerned about the impact of intensive schooling on vulnerable children. Young people already suffer from record levels of tiredness as well as stress and other mental health problems. Nationally, one in ten (aged 5-16) has a diagnosable mental health illness.

Here in Kent, around 20,585 children are unwell. An estimated 12,400 have a conduct disorder while 8,000 struggle with the likes of anxiety and depression.

Countywide, West Kent has the greatest number of overall sufferers – 6,721 – while NHS Swale has the least, at just 1,594 (Source: Kent County Council).

With half of all mental health problems being established by the age of 14, and many youngsters self-harming from around age 11, clearly the time from secondary school transition upwards is crucial.

During Mental Health Awareness Week – which this year focuses on relationships – we wonder about the pressure this proposal places on precious family life and whether parents will find themselves struggling to make time for relationships with their children.

Compressing it further surely isn’t the answer to making it more joyful, successful and fulfilling.

Our view is that extending the school day is perhaps premature until we better understand the longer term impact it will have on this generation of children.

We’re keen to open the debate. What do the town’s schools and parents think of this proposal? Are they positive or do they share our concerns?

Please contact us with your thoughts. Write to The Editor, The Times of Tunbridge Wells and Tonbridge, 16 Lonsdale Gardens, Tunbridge Wells TN1 1NU; email newsdesk@timesoftunbridgewells.co.uk

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