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Parents back longer school day for more sport and drama, new poll reveals

Most parents back radical new plans to extend the school day to give more time to extra-curricular activities such as sport and drama, according to a new opinion poll (@csjthinktank).

It found that 51 per cent of parents want their children to enjoy a richer variety of experiences at school – with only 19 per cent opposed to the idea, and a further 20 per cent saying they would follow the decision of their school.

The YouGov poll was commissioned by the Centre for Social Justice as part of its campaign – backed by rugby star Lawrence Dallaglio – to persuade the Government to extend the school day by five hours a week.

In the wake of extremely high school absentee figures in autumn 2020, with 54.7 more pupils ‘severely absent’ from education compared to autumn 2019, the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) argues for a stronger extra-curricular programme and a longer school day to achieve it. 

The long-term aim is to improve the mental and physical health of Britain’s most disadvantaged pupils, bolster their soft skills and turn them away from criminal gangs.

The think tank’s short paper, A level playing field: Why we need a new school enrichment guarantee and how to deliver it, suggests countless youth have been left behind in the Government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

In addition to the dire attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers, the CSJ warns that children’s mental health problems are spiralling: the rate of probable disorders rose from 1 in 9 in 2017 to 1 in 6 in 2020.

One in five young people is obese by age 17, a problem that is particularly acute for disadvantaged individuals even by Year 6.

The paper also notes that youth crime is ripping through Britain’s communities and, as gangs continue to exploit generation Covid, more could join the roster of 27,000 children who currently self-identify as gang members. 

The paper’s key recommendation, to extend the school day with a wide variety of structured activities and clubs such as sports, music, art, drama, dance, adventure, debating, volunteering, business, digital and cooking, follows a poll commissioned by the CSJ showing a widespread absence of such initiatives.

According to the results of the CSJ-YouGov poll, one in five parents in England report that their primary or secondary school children do no enrichment activities in an average week. This rises to around one in four of those in the lowest social grades (C2 and DE). 

The polling also revealed a significant regional disparity in the take up of enrichment activities. Parents of pupils in the North West and Yorkshire and the Humber were 2.5 and almost 3 times more likely than parents in London to report their children do not participate in enrichment activities in an average week. 

Yet the survey revealed considerable support for the policy of extending the school day specifically for enrichment activities. 

Only 19 per cent of parents reject the idea, while 51 per cent support some time requirement for pupils to do enrichment activities outside of normal school hours, and 20 per cent of parents believed this should be left up to the school. Parents from the lowest (DE) and highest (AB) socio-economic groups are similarly disposed to support a requirement. 

Parents who selected a time requirement response in the survey were most likely to support between 30 and 60 minutes of enrichment activities per day.

Based on the ‘extended services in schools’ programme between 2003-2010, the CSJ shows that previous attempts to increase the school day boasted impressive results.

According to an evaluation of 1,500 schools that extended their days (97 per cent of which offered activities including sport, music, arts/crafts, study support, volunteering and business/enterprise activities): 

  • 71 per cent of schools reported this helped them engage disadvantaged families; 
  • 69 per cent found it had at least some influence in raising attainment;
    • 82 per cent reported greater pupil enjoyment of school;
    • 45 per cent noted improved pupil attendance; 
  • 54 per cent said it reduced behaviour or discipline problems;
    • 31 per cent saw a reduced number of exclusions; and
    • 68 per cent observed stronger links between schools and their communities. 

The Essential Life Skills programme – a £21.75 million project which ran between 2018-2019 – also improved access to extra-curricular activities (including sports, arts, debating and information technology) for pupils aged 5-18 in disadvantaged areas.

While some schools already extend their days, many in the public sector lack the resources to do this. According to the ‘extended school services’ evaluation, the most common barrier to developing and delivering extended services was funding (63 per cent), followed by lack of available facilities or places (23 per cent) and lack of specialist staff (23 per cent). 

To bolster the take-up of enrichment activities, the CSJ makes several recommendations to Government.

All primary and secondary pupils would be required to do at least 5 hours of extra-curricular enrichment every school week, excluding weekends. The figure complements the ideal expressed by parents who wanted more enrichment in the CSJ/YouGov poll for up to 60 minutes per day. A mandatory requirement would increase the perceived importance of extra-curricular activities, and make it less likely that disadvantaged pupils would miss out.

Schools would have a duty to meet the demand that flowed from this requirement, and would then claim back the commensurate cost of extra-curricular activities from DfE, up to a maximum ceiling. Ofsted would scrutinise the extent to which schools were meeting their new duty. 

To avoid teachers shouldering the new policy, community organisations would be asked to run the programmes. Approved providers would receive direct grant funding from government and would market their offers to schools – this would run alongside the bulk of commissioning, which would be done by schools.

Also vital is that schools accurately communicate to parents what is being proposed, and that schools are given adequate resources to build rich, varied programmes.

There would be a lead time of at least one full academic year before the obligations take full effect. 

The CSJ’s paper combines data analysis with commissioned polling of parents across the country.

Lawrence Dallaglio, former England rugby captain, said:

“It is time to narrow the gap between state schools and public schools. Pupils at public schools get hours of extra-curricular activity every week, including sport, drama and music. State school pupils, especially those from the poorest backgrounds, get far fewer of these life-enhancing opportunities.

“The CSJ plan would help to narrow this gap to the benefit of millions of children and society as a whole. All the evidence shows that social problems such as gang crime, mental health issues, and truancy can be sharply reduced by enriching the educational experience.

“After the damage done to children by Covid restrictions, we owe it to them to make a new start. The plan is here – all it now needs is the political will to make it happen.”

Andy Cook, Chief Executive of the CSJ, said:

“Children are disengaging from school and broader society at a frightening pace. As well as helping families to stay together, and helping parents to support their children, we should encourage schools to play their part in rebuilding society.

“The evidence suggests pupils should engage more fully in their education – both academically and more generally. 

“Extra-curricular activities boost their mental and physical health, and their soft skills. They would be safer – both by avoiding the 4-6pm window when half of under-16 stabbings occur, and because enrichment programmes move children away from gangs. 

“We urgently need to address the fact that children from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely than their more fortunate peers to take part in extra-curricular initiatives. Enrichment provides numerous benefits to children, and offers a vital route out of poverty, social alienation and low self-esteem.

“The latest CSJ paper and its recommendations couldn’t be more timely.”

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