Solving the school places crisis without building a single classroom

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In the London Borough of Bromley, as in many places across the country, we are facing a massive projected shortfall in school places over the next few years. Councillors and activists from all parties are busy scrutinising planning applications for new schools of all shapes and sizes. But is it really necessary?

Imagine a school, let’s call it the Tweddle Academy (though pupils and staff just call it Tweds). Tweds was once a medium sized comprehensive with 1200 children on roll. Now it is an establishment providing all-through education for 2400 kids aged 6 to 18.

The school day at Tweds begins at 7.30am when children aged 6 to 12 arrive. They attend lessons until 10.20am, have a 20 minute break, then it’s back to the classroom. At 1.30pm they head to the school canteen for lunch before being dismissed for the day an hour later.

At 1.15pm while the younger pupils come to the end of lessons, teachers wait by the school gate to register the senior cohort. At 1.30pm, after the younger children have moved to the canteen, the 13 to 18 year olds begin their lessons. Their school day runs from 1.30pm to 7.30pm, with a 20 minute break.

It’s a tough day for the staff of Tweds. Fortunately the flexible working arrangements that allow teachers and support staff to work early or late shifts depending upon their personal circumstances have more than compensated for the extension to both the school day and the reduction of the summer holidays from 6 to 3 weeks.

Okay! Before all you teachers out there start throwing rocks at my windows at the mere thought of having 2400 kids on a site designated for half that number, the basic idea (which wasn’t mine) is sound. Our current stock of school buildings is massively under-utilised; rather than constructing more buildings to sit idle, the number of school places can be increased (or decreased) by altering the utilisation of the current stock. This is flexible schooling for a more flexible age.

Could something like this work? Who knows! That’s a question for experts. My real point is a larger one. When developing policies that address the huge challenges that face us, it’s essential that we step back from our natural bias that says that the way we do things now must be, for the most part, along the right lines. Maybe it was, once. That doesn’t mean it is now. Nor does it mean we are stuck with it. We have an education system whose structure has barely changed since the 19th century, perhaps it’s time that it joined us in the 21st.

Also, there is a common belief that being liberal, that approaching life from the pragmatic centre, leads to wishy-washy, watered down policies that lack substance. Well this proposal is none of those things. But is it illiberal? Is it extremist or oppressive? Of course it’s not. It’s just an innovative answer to a current problem, and one that seeks to find a solution that uses the education budget to teach our kids rather than line the pockets of building contractors.

It’s not an easy answer, but maybe it’s time we considered a few radical alternatives across the whole policy spectrum. That way we can offer the voters workable solutions for the 21st century that don’t just tinker round the edges but give them a real choice, and one that comes without the baggage of left-wing or right-wing extremism offered by our competitors.

* Allan Tweddle joined the party in 2015 and is an approved council candidate for the London Borough of Bromley for the 2018 local elections.

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39 Comments

  • That sounds awful.

  • Bill Fowler 7th Aug '17 - 11:00am

    Until there is some way to get discipline back into the schools, teachers are going to have a hard time. Always thought some subjects like religion, geography and history could be better taught by videos, rather than grinding through literature etc so may be variable class sizes depending on the subject might be the way to go, so less teachers in some areas and more in others.

  • Christopher Curtis 7th Aug '17 - 11:01am

    While I agree that we could make much better use of public buildings (for example, why don’t we place public libraries and council-run leisure centres next to or on the campus of schools to maximise their resources and use?), education simply is not a production line in which you will get x amount of knowledge and skills in return for y amount of hours in the classroom to be organised with ruthless “efficiency”. It is about growing people not making a product. People need time and space in which to learn and develop. They will need to consolidate and play with concepts and skills and so need to be at school in a rhythm and with the facilities to allow that.
    The traditional school day and year are not ideal, and more to do with agricultural cycles and the need to have both parents in work during the daytime than the needs of education, but trying to cram two school communities into one set of facilities is not going to produce better education.

  • Christopher Curtis 7th Aug '17 - 11:07am

    The great educator, Geoff Cooksey, often mused about the frustrations and limitations of British education. He said universal education came about fairly quickly and governments had to look to existing models to implement it. There were only really the public schools. Governments saw grand historical buildings, countless acres of land, deep traditions, cloisters, faculties full of very able teachers etc. etc. and realised that would never be affordable for all, so they adopted the (ghastly and ineffective) public school curriculum and exams instead.
    Schools do need more than a classroom and a teacher to do good work. They need to be real communities, with shared values and even a sense of fun.

  • nigel hunter 7th Aug '17 - 11:12am

    ‘Less teachers in some areas and more in others’ I would say we need teachers in all areas but not necessarily in schools but throughout life. Education in schools should be the base blocks of kindling a thirst for knowledge throughout life, so that people can grow into an all round human being.

  • Andrew Toye 7th Aug '17 - 11:20am

    It’s right that we should think of alternatives to the Status Quo, but also think of the consequences of those altenatives. Children to start school at 7:30 am? Home again from 1:30 pm? Most people’s working patterns are not that flexible. Keep dreaming the impossible dream and one day we might find something that works. Not the authors’ own idea, so where did it come from? Is it a serious proposal?

  • Has Mr Tweddle got any idea what it takes to get a child of 6 (what has happened to the younger ones ?) out of bed, dressed, got to school by 7.30 am ? Has Mr Tweddle got any idea how his grand plan would affect the parents’ working day and lives ?

    Welcome to the world of broiler house chicken schools.

  • Allan Tweddle 7th Aug '17 - 11:51am

    In answer to the question whether this is a serious proposal my intention was to offer something different to spark debate. It has obvious problems, but opportunities too. For instance children would be left with larger blocks of time (either in the morning or afternoon) to focus on structured extra-curricular activities.

  • Allan Tweddle 7th Aug '17 - 12:01pm

    In answer to Mr Raw’s questions yes and no respectively. Each parent’s day is different and how we structure it and work round our own circumstances is different. All I would say is that having school dumped in the middle from 8.45 to 3.15 throws up its own set of challenges for many of us. We have just learned to live with it.

  • David Allen 7th Aug '17 - 12:06pm

    Nice try, doesn’t work. Would it be more practical to seek to make schools available for non-educational community uses in the evenings and at weekends?

  • H.L. Mencken’s “There is always a well-known solution to every human problem — neat, plausible, and wrong.” comes to mind…

  • A question for everyone who has commented dismissing the idea of a much earlier start to the school day: how much do you know about the other countries around the world where a much earlier start is the norm?

    I ask because from the comments above it looks like people are dismissing the idea without being aware that it appears to work well in several other countries. But of course judging how much thought there is behind a brief comment is a risky business… so (especially as this isn’t a topic I know that much about), I’m genuinely interested – is all the hostility to the idea based on knowing what happens in other countries and perhaps having good reasons for thinking it either doesn’t work there or wouldn’t work here?

  • An independent school near me has starting running its sixth form classes from 1.30 to 7pm. This was partly because of research into the study patterns of teenagers. http://www.hamptoncourthouse.co.uk/sixth-form/lessons-start-time/. You can see the head discussing it on the BBC news at the bottom of that link.

  • Phil Beesley 7th Aug '17 - 1:10pm

    When do the cleaners and maintenance staff start work? At 05:30 or 19:45 after the second shift have left?

    What hours do admin staff work? Separate team for each shift?

    What after outdoor activities will be practical at 19:45 when it is pitch black in winter?

    Do we achieve economies of scale or do we wear the buildings out twice as fast?

    How do 15/16 year old lads and lasses use classroom furniture designed for seven year olds?

    I am being very negative because I have heard similar proposals for four term university years. Putting my positive hat on, I’ve observed successful extended post grad courses (end in Aug/Sept rather than June). If there are a few courses, university admin and library, computing etc can work around them. Educational resources can be used more efficiently but there are limits.

    I favour the Beesley Academy with one shift of students — and I’m open to advice from experts about time of day to turn up and to start teaching. Pupils would have two 15 minute breaks either side of the 45 minute lunch break. As per every Focus leaflet of the 1970s, schools would then be available for adult education classes (furniture permitting)…

    IT kit could be used more productively. Lots of teaching rooms might be rented out to clubs or teaching bodies. You have to design the room for public access by adults after school hours. You have to negotiate agreements for software that is licensed for child education to be used for something else. It is the sort of thing best developed and initiated by a new school build or somebody very brave.

  • The proposed working day for the Tweddle Academy sounds pretty much like every day practice in Rwanda.

  • Phil Beesley 7th Aug '17 - 1:33pm

    @Mark Pack: “how much do you know about the other countries around the world where a much earlier start is the norm?”

    I think that is the wrong question. If we are considering “early start”, we have to consider “late bedtime”, child care hours, latitude and day light hours etc. We can’t randomly pick somewhere for comparison. One might argue for different getting up times within the UK according to natural light.

  • Mark Pack 7th Aug ’17 – 1:05pm……A question for everyone who has commented dismissing the idea of a much earlier start to the school day: how much do you know about the other countries around the world where a much earlier start is the norm?…..

    I’m not sure about much earlier strats (Japan 8.45, Finland 8.30, Sweden 8.15, etc.) and I am unaware of any that would run from 7.30 am to 7.30pm…(There is a shortage of quality teachers now…This ‘proposal’ seems to have much in common with Hunt’s 24/7 medical answer)…

  • Allan Tweddle 7th Aug '17 - 2:43pm

    I think that a 7.30am start is not unreasonable. In practice many parents drop kids with childminders or at nurseries before that time. The 7.30pm finish does raise questions, not because teenagers have no time for additional activities (they have that in the morning), but about how to organise family time, the evening meal etc. Of course this is a problem that families already deal with on a regular basis given many parents don’t work traditional hours.

  • Peter Watson 7th Aug '17 - 2:47pm

    I welcome a discussion on this site about something so important and so relevant but which is not Brexit. It is great to see somebody starting a debate with some imagination and some concrete suggestions. I’d love to see more articles like this (though I have been trying unsuccessfully to wean myself off LDV!).

    On the subject of the article, I think it starts off on the wrong tack by pitching itself as a solution to the shortage of school places. I would rather see it as part of a wider debate on how best to structure schools, including the management of the school day, for the benefit of our children’s education. As a parent (with one child still in school and another preparing to become a teacher) I accept the criticisms levelled by some above, and there are definitely a lot of practical problems to be overcome by any changes to the status quo. But I believe that the revival of the Lib Dems needs the party, in education and so many other areas, to review and explore the evidence, develop creative / practical / liberal ideas and debate their merits. That is why articles like this are to be applauded whether or not one agrees with their proposals.

  • Allan Tweddle 7th Aug '17 - 3:18pm

    A number of commenters have raised the notion of using school buildings for alternative activities once the school day is over. This is great in theory however the practice has been less successful. The problem is that schools are designed according to their primary purpose, to contain and educate 1000 plus kids. They can rent out their halls, a percentage of their classrooms, their sports facilities, but that still leaves most of the school unused when the kids aren’t in it. I have 3 primary schools and 2 secondaries within hiking distance of where I live and I can’t think of enough alternative uses to fill one of them. We could do better, we could design new schools with alternative uses in mind, but then we remain where we are and are back to building more schools to cope with the demographic bulge that faces us over the next few years.

  • Andrew Fitton 7th Aug '17 - 3:57pm

    I do agree with another commentator that the article starts on the wrong footing by seeking to solve a spending problem rather than being a better way to educate kids. Politically does no things for austerity is not popular right now.

    I have school age children and I would encourage those who dismiss the article whether the school day as presently configured Is the best we can do though.

    For a start I believe (please correct me if wrong – I’m sure I read it somewhere) it is scientifically proven than younger children tend to wake and be alert early and older children are more alert in the afternoon. Certainly my own kids behaviours bear this out as my son (6) is bouncing round the house at 6am but is a monster past 6pm while my daughter approaching her teens is starting to slow considerably in the mornings but is more active between midday and 8pm.

    Moreover, the current school day is not ideal for working parents. Kids have to trail to before and after school clubs at either end of the day. If my kids need to go to one (and they may do shortly) I would strongly prefer to drop them off or pick them up from school and have the club at one end of the day only. The kids also have a longer spell to do sport rather than cramming it in after school or before. How many parents of swimmers would welcome dropping their child off with the swimming coach at 8 rather than be at the pool at 6 – to give one example.

    I have no sense of how the teaching profession would react but it would be good to ask the Teaching professionals organisations whether they would restructure the school day and see if they and parent groups could refine the idea or identify weaknesses. Perhaps more teachers or people identifying themselves as parents of children in school now (well not right now as it’s the holidays) could comment.

    The proposal or a discussion around it has merit. I just would not have cost reduction as the reason for it. That may be a helpful by-product although if it was, my first act would to plough savings back into teaching staff.

  • Peter Watson 7th Aug '17 - 4:57pm

    @Andrew Fitton “younger children tend to wake and be alert early and older children are more alert in the afternoon”
    I can almost pinpoint the day (around his 12th birthday) that my second son switched from springing out of bed bright as a button early in the morning at the slightest noise to needing dynamite and cold water to stir him from his reveries before midday. So anecdotally, I would support your hypothesis! 🙂

  • Nonconformistradical 7th Aug '17 - 5:54pm

    @Andrew Fitton
    “For a start I believe (please correct me if wrong – I’m sure I read it somewhere) it is scientifically proven than younger children tend to wake and be alert early and older children are more alert in the afternoon.”

    Please don’t use the phrase ‘scientifically proven’ – it makes it sound like an advert for an over the counter medicine or something.

    However there has been research suggesting that teenagers tend to have a shifted circadian rhythm resulting in their having difficulty in getting to sleep at night and waking up in the morning.

    A poke around the web will show this – and some attempts at varying the school day accordingly. Not sure that there are any definite conclusions though.

  • Nonconformistradical – The evidence is discussed in the clip at the end of the link I gave earlier. http://www.hamptoncourthouse.co.uk/sixth-form/lessons-start-time/

  • Peter Brand 7th Aug '17 - 10:35pm

    Why not keep it operating 24/7? It could handle 6000 pupils then. I have no idea where all those families are going to find housing in Bromley, mind.

  • This is extremely common in Latin America and Africa. We need to make better use of our physical capital … and give teachers more flexibility in their hours.

  • Nigel Jones 8th Aug '17 - 9:59am

    Some years ago, Hollingsclough primary school in the peak district was faced with a huge increase in parents wanting their children to go there. It’s a very small village school and similar schools (like the one at Flash) have recently had to close due to being deemed inefficient. However, they switched to having two cohorts of children, each attending 3 days per week. On the other 2 days parents were directed by the teachers on what they should do to educate their children; this included taking them to libraries, museums, field trips etc. as well as work in each other’s homes. Obviously they had parents who were able to do these things.
    Research by an educationist concluded that the children were unusually happy and turned on to learning much more than average; the activities outside the classroom played a major part in that. I do not know whether this experiment is continuing but maybe we can find out.

  • Andrew Fitton 8th Aug '17 - 10:43am

    Nigel Jones

    I like that idea. I guess though it may work some places and not others. Some communities are likely not be able to commit to home schooling or community education outside school two days a week – for example where you have a higher proportion of families where parents work and there is less family support; as you say they had parents who could do these things.

    I think though this demonstrates that the structure of the school day or week could vary and one size does not fit all but one could give schools / local authorities /communities much greater latitude to decide what works best in their community or if that latitude exists already, some better support including models and experience to see it through.

  • jayne Mansfield 8th Aug '17 - 11:00am

    @ Peter Watson,

    Your anecdotal evidence concurs with mine. However, there is a science to it and there are Professors of sleep science such as Professor Colin Espie.

    He is mentioned in an article by BBC reporter Hannah Richardson:-

    ‘Later school time may boost GCE results’ available on the internet.

    My only concern is that any changes that may be made are made with the interests of the child and not to save money. The level of stress and anxiety amongst children caused by external and internal pressures needs to be alleviated not increased.

  • Simon Banks 8th Aug '17 - 12:41pm

    I can see some problems for parents. They have to get up about 5:30 to get the 11 year old ready to go to school and the 13 year old gets back home at 20:15 wanting an evening meal. The reduction of the summer holidays to three weeks would put huge pressure on holiday accommodation, roads etc in that period, whereas at present summer holidays are spread. That’s unless flexible working was for the kids as well as the teachers, with a relaxation of rules on holidays during term time and online lessons to make up.

    Similar points about Nigel’s example. It only works if the parents are free at those times. One works in town and the other keeps the village shop? Problem.

  • Helen Tedcastle 8th Aug '17 - 1:16pm

    Most teachers teach across the age range from 11-18 or 11-16. This proposal basically splits the profession into two: middle school teachers and upper secondary teachers.

    Good luck trying to find more graduate teachers who are prepared to give up teaching GCSE and A level classes to teach Years 7-9 only.

  • Helen Tedcastle 8th Aug '17 - 1:28pm

    Allan Tweddle
    ” I think that a 7.30am start is not unreasonable. In practice many parents drop kids with childminders or at nurseries before that time.”

    So you would also think it reasonable for teachers to arrive at school at around 6-6:30am, because teachers already arrive early (for the most part) for the school day now. In fact, I know of staff who had already done two hours of marking before arriving at school at around 8am each day.

    Many teachers work late into the night as well.

    All this of course is never factored in by policy-makers or even most non-teachers.

  • Antony Watts 8th Aug '17 - 3:52pm

    A few principles

    1 Education is for kids, not you or me or teachers. If kids can work from 7:30am to 7:30pm then that’s OK. Just need to organise ourselves around that. Absolutely do not accept that parent problems can interfere: have to change employment to get over that not penalise children.
    2 Schools are assets. If we make those assets lower cost we get a better ROI. So build more low cost schools, even in insulated containers!
    3 Teachers are to be respected, given reasonable work loads. They are not social behaviour teachers or moral spies. This must not be asked of them.

  • Helen Tedcastle 8th Aug '17 - 6:37pm

    Antony Watts
    ” 1 Education is for kids, not you or me or teachers. If kids can work from 7:30am to 7:30pm then that’s OK. Just need to organise ourselves around that. ”

    Certainly, if kids can work up chimneys for twelve hours a day then that’s ok… We can organise ourselves around that…

    Reality check: Kids are very adaptable but they are developing. They are immature.

    That’s why there are adults. To organise what is best for them in terms of learning opportunities and conditions conducive for optimum learning but also a balanced life.

    In what kind of society is it ok to organise a school day as long as the one you suggest or starting as early, which pays no regard to the main facilitators of good learning: the teachers, and makes young children work such long hours ?

    Perhaps you might find such education in South Korea (with the highest suicide rates among young people in the world) or Latin America (newly emerging economies).

    Please explain how these cultures are in any way similar to ours?

  • Allan Tweddle 8th Aug '17 - 6:37pm

    Just to clarify, I never intended to achieve cost savings via this proposal. My assumption was that we would save money on new buildings and spend it instead on teachers, educational resources, and possibly more and better focused extracurricular activities. Nor did I comment on the style of education, focusing instead on the structure of the day. I also slightly increased the number of hours kids spend in the classroom by shortening the summer holiday by 3 weeks. By reducing contact time to around current levels we could choose to have the summer holiday back or shorten the school day by half an hour. If the school day started at 8am or finished at 7pm would that make a difference to people’s opinions?

  • @Helen Tedcastle –
    “So you would also think it reasonable for teachers to arrive at school at around 6-6:30am, because teachers already arrive early (for the most part) for the school day now. In fact, I know of staff who had already done two hours of marking before arriving at school at around 8am each day.

    Many teachers work late into the night as well.

    All this of course is never factored in by policy-makers or even most non-teachers.”

    From my recent assessment of my local state secondary schools, only one (located in a deprived area) truly regarded itself as a “place of work”. From this simple concept flowed two very important guiding principles:

    1. Business don’t set homework, to be done outside of business hours – thus time would be included in the school day for ‘homework’.
    2. Staff should not be taking work home, if they are having to regularly work ‘overtime’ to perform their normal duties then the school is not fulfilling its responsibilities as their employer.

    Having now experienced the service being delivered by this school for three years now (time flies) I can say it works and attracts and retains high quality and motivated teachers (of a calibre I remember encountering infrequently during my 1970’s grammar school education). Naturally, the effect this (it’s other “its not rocket science” approach) has on the students has to be seen to be fully appreciated.

    So I fully take on where you are coming from and agree it is unreasonable to expect teachers to arrive at work excessively early and have to work excessively late. However, I also think it is unreasonable to expect teacher to have to take work home and think the teaching unions should be doing more to turn teaching into a normal professional job and thus disagree that we should be treating the out-of-hours marking, lesson planning etc. as normal.

  • Helen Tedcastle 9th Aug '17 - 12:46pm

    Roland
    “1. Business don’t set homework, to be done outside of business hours – thus time would be included in the school day for ‘homework’.
    2. Staff should not be taking work home, if they are having to regularly work ‘overtime’ to perform their normal duties then the school is not fulfilling its responsibilities as their employer.”

    1. A school is not a business. It is a public service. Any amount of jargon and attempts to replace the language of service, vocation and community with the transactional mentality won’t change that fact.

    2. Staff in schools you don’t know already work at school. They work at home because there is a lot of work to do. I know of headteachers who claim that their staff don’t need to take work home, and who claim not to take work home themselves. it’s instructive to talk to colleagues of theirs, and also inspectors, to find out what is really going on. Often it means some things simply don’t get done. Even quite important things.

    I find it hard to believe that the school you mention is like a 1970s grammar school. Schools of today and schools of that era, are worlds apart. The workloads of teachers just cannot be compared fairly. And professionalism, or a culture of fear engendered by the leadership team, probably dictates that outsiders (parents counts in this too) don’t get to find out what the teachers really think of their workplace.

  • @Helen
    I find it hard to believe that the school you mention is like a 1970s grammar school. Helen, I think you misread what I said – I used the word ‘infrequently’ implying the number of high calibre of teachers was significantly greater than I remember encountering in the 1970’s…

    Schools of today and schools of that era, are worlds apart.
    Totally agree, one of the reasons I was pleased my children won in the places lottery and got to go to this school was because it was the only school in the area that didn’t remind me of my school days!

    As you and others have repeatedly noted: we have done rather a lot of R&D into child development and education since the 1970’s – much of which has arrived at conclusions that “aren’t rocket science” and don’t need rocket science to implement. So in my selection, I reasoned if a school overtly reminded me of my schooling then it’s
    leadership were behind the times and thus doing their pupils a disservice.

    1. A school is not a business. It is a public service.
    Sorry, a school is in the business of educating children, a serious matter. But as I noted the school regarded itself as a “place of work” and hence adopted relevant and appropriate business practices and behaviours.

    They work at home because there is a lot of work to do.
    Sorry, not a good enough reason. If the work normally needs to be done (eg. marking, lesson planning etc.) then it should be done during the school working day and not at home. There is no real reason why schools should be operating in exactly the same (amateur) way they operated in back in the 1970’s and before, given our understanding of management, operations etc. has also undergone significant advances.

    it’s instructive to talk to colleagues of theirs, and also inspectors, to find out what is really going on.
    It is also instructive to talk to those who have changed jobs (leavers and joiners) as they undergo the very real stress of changing from working in this school and the more typical state schools you allude to; many use language that would be familiar to those with an appreciation of culture-shock…

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