Antiquated School Day is Failing Everyone

We spend a great deal of time in Australia debating the curriculum we teach our children and the teaching methods deployedand wringing our hands about NAPLAN tests and OECD rankings.

But in doing so we seem to assume the structure of school – particularly the “when” – is set in stone. Gonski Mark 2 is just the latest example of this misdirected debate.

Though teaching methods, curriculums, society and our expectations of the education system have changed vastly in the past 70 years, the major structural parameters of the system have not.

The standard remains the one set in the post-World War Two era. Children are taught roughly from 9am to 3pm, Monday to Friday, for roughly 40 weeks a year, from the ages of five to 18.

Over a period in which the nature and structure of work, society and family life have undergone profound transformations, the school routine has remained largely untouched.

Any institution that survives largely unchanged for almost 70 years is either remarkably well-designed, or is remarkably resistant to evolution and outside pressures. I believe it is the latter.

By any conventional measure, the school system in Australia should be ripe for disruption.

At a time when a major policy challenge for all levels of government is to increase workforce participation, especially of women, schools remain structured around the now antiquated post-war family structure.

The school routine continues to assume that one parent (the male) works a full-time job and the other parent (the female) is a full-time carer. Today the norm is entirely reversed: almost two-thirds of families with children have both parents working (with the figure higher still for single-parent households).

In an age when we seek to get more out of our existing resources, be it accommodation (Airbnb), transport (Uber), roads (autonomous vehicles), office space (WeWork) or data storage (cloud-based computing), the utilisation of our schools as an asset class remains woeful. Most school assets – the buildings and infrastructure – are used only during school hours, or roughly 15 per cent of the time.

We expect government services to adapt to the tempos and demands of modern life, yet the school system remains stubbornly resistant to even the contemplation of change.

And in an economy which demands increasingly high levels of skill and education, if we are to maintain our standards of living and way of life, perhaps some of the answer lies simply in more hours of education and learning.

Working families with children in primary school face particular struggles. If both parents work a regular full-time job, then dropping the children at school and making it to work on time is almost impossible. Parents manage this through a combination of before-school care, one parent starting work later (if their boss allows such flexibility), or relying on grandparents. But why not simply start the school day at 8am, and make lives easier for these families?

The afternoon pick-up at 3pm poses similar challenges. Again, some combination of part-time work, after-school hours care (for which places are in short supply), and grandparents or other carers are used to manage this.

The reality is that most primary age children with both parents working are doing some form of after-school activity, either on the school grounds or elsewhere, for at least several afternoons a week.

But if this is the case, why not mainstream it into the school day? Why not have service providers use school facilities to offer a full range of after-school activities, from sports to dance, music to art, rather than the one-size-fits-all after-school care currently on offer? Why not have service providers rent out school facilities and create a valuable stream of income for schools?

I’m not calling for children to be over-programmed. But if they are doing the equivalent of full-time days, then at least we can give them some variety and stimulation.

School holidays are another testing time for working parents. With upwards of 12 weeks of school holidays each year, but two working parents usually having access to at most a combined eight weeks (and only then if they never take a holiday together), bridging this gap is a continual source of stress.

Children’s holiday’ programs are often expensive, hard to access, and with their disparate locations and hours put a further strain on family logistics.

Meanwhile for 12 weeks a year, school facilities sit largely unused. So why not open the schools during this period and offer school holiday programs from there, using external service providers?

No doubt any one of these suggested reforms throws up complex policy challenges and will involve taking on a number of vested interests who prefer the status quo. But governments should be brave enough to tackle such challenges directly, rather than tinkering around the edges with measures such as the child care subsidy.

We fundamentally need to rethink school if we are to make it easier for working parents to educate their children, earn a living, and balance work and family pressures. Stubborn adherence to the current school system is failing nearly everyone – children, parents, society and the economy at large.

Originally published as an opinion piece in the Sun Herald on 17 June 2018.

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