Above: Principal of Doveton College, Greg McMahon
Changing school hours to start the day earlier and keep classrooms open till evening is an experimental practice getting traction among some educators.In the recent Commonwealth Bank Teaching Awards, run by Schools Plus - an education charity - two out of 12 principals were recognised for changing the timing of the school day and incorporating the local community into teaching programs.
The awards are made on the basis of improving outcomes in areas of high unemployment and social disadvantage. But the results were strong and consistent enough to lead Schools Plus to say earlier and longer school hours warrants wider application.The principal of Doveton College in south-east Melbourne, Greg McMahon, says he used to have an attendance rate of about 85 per cent compared to the state average of 93 per cent Unemployment in the region was spreading into the third generation of some families as companies such as Holden and Heinz shut down.
McMahon says when he arrived at Doveton three years ago only 7 per cent of kids were engaged in after-school activities. Out of 800 students in the prep-to-year-nine college 200 were known to social services and 65 per cent of school families did not have English as their first language.The new principal set off a series of changes, one of the most significant being to open the school from 6.30am till 8.30 at night "The big problem was the lack of confidence from the parents. Mum and dad weren't engaged with the school and didn't know how to go about it," he says.
McMahon engaged leaders of the local Indigenous community which had about 50 kids at Doveton who were reluctant to go into class."The leaders said 'give us the school basketball court at 6.30am and well get them to class'. And it's been an absolute ripper. The young boys arrive, play, shower, have breakfast and are in class by 9am."
With money from the Colman Foundation, a philanthropic trust, and Gonski 1.0 needs-based equity funding from the Victorian government McMahon set up an extended teaching program. This runs from early learning for families with babies to TAFE courses up to certificate level 4 for parents - which extended the school opening hours until 8.30pm on some days.Engagement with after-school activities is now running at 80 per cent, compared to the 7 per cent when McMahon started. Attendance is at state average. In the statewide Attitudes to School Survey, which gauges year 7-9 student opinion, the school ranked in the top 10 per cent It used to be in the bottom 10 per cent Schools Plus CEO Rosemary Conn says old paradigms of education are not working for kids. "We recognise transformative practice in areas of disadvantage. Advantaged schools have more staff and more parents with time but they can benefit too from things like extending school hours."
"It's things like after-school learning centres and parent engagement outside school hours."At Merrylands East Public School in western Sydney, principal John Goh has brought the whole day forward.
School starts at 8am and finishes at 1.15pm. There is one break, between 10.30am and 11am. The school caters for kindergarten to year 6."We still do the required teaching hours for a public school. We found kids were fatigued in the afternoon, engagement was very low."
Nearly 90 per cent of students come from families where English is a second language and many of the parents work in industries operating way beyond the 9 to 5 day: "One parent will be at work and change-over time is 3pm. So they would never see their kids during the working week. And parents can drop the kids to school before 8am and still get to work."Like McMahon, Goh introduced other changes with the new school hours. With Gonski 1.0 money he hired instructional leaders to coach teachers in literacy and numeracy teaching practice.
Senior research fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies Jennifer Buckingham welcomes schools having the autonomy to respond to the community. She says autonomy generally happens when there is more school choice which would be a desirable reform in state education departments.Flexibility was often difficult given work arrangements and salary entitlements; EBAs should allow that, she says.
In the case of teenagers, research by the Brookings Institution in the US argued they benefit from.later start times, given changes in the body clock during puberty which affect sleep habits.Buckingham says shifting the school day back might help teenagers marginally, but was offset by a loss of opportunity for after-school activity.
Ben Jensen, who runs an education consultancy focused on classroom outcomes, says notwithstanding the good outcomes at Doveton and Merrylands East, the evidence is poor for extending school hours, especially if it is mandated.He says the real message from the two schools is not about extending working hours but giving school principals the flexibility to do more of what they know is working.
"Things like school hours are generally tough to negotiate around," he says. "Experienced school principals, like all of us, find ways to bend the rules when they know something will really help their kids - but a number of regulations and components of collective agreements can be very tough to get around. It often depends not only on the school principals, but the collective will of the school and the community."Commonwealth Bank's general manger of corporate responsibility Kylie Macfarlane, who oversaw the awards, says they weren't especially looking for changes in school hours.
But they were looking for educators who do more in complex family situations.
"Interventions are not simply about education, they're about whole of life."
From: AFR Weekend, Australia by Robert Bolton 21 April 2018