Schools across the country will be told to provide at least 32.5 hours of teaching a week under a new government plan.
The Schools White Paper, published on Monday, will set out the new minimum requirement along with other changes which the Department for Education (DfE) says will build upon Boris Johnson’s levelling-up plan.
Most primary and secondary schools already offer a 32.5-hour week, but ministers say there are “discrepancies” which they want abolished by 2023.
The new minimum is the equivalent of an 8.45am to 3.15pm day, Monday to Friday.
Education secretary Nadhim Zahawi confirmed the plan on Sunday – saying a child who receives 20 minutes less teaching time per day ultimately ends up missing out on two weeks of learning a year.
The cabinet minister told Sky News’ Sophy Ridge on Sunday: “The average school day is 32-and-a-half hours. Some schools, thousands of schools are 30 minutes lower than that – so we want schools to be, sort of, 9am to 3.30pm.”
Mr Zahawi added: “I’d like them all to do it by the end of this year, but I know some will have logistical problems. Which is why we’ve said by next year.”
The DfE said the change aimed to build upon the government’s levelling-up mission for schools, which aims for 90 per cent of pupils leaving primary school to have reached expected standards in numeracy and literacy.
The Labour Party’s shadow education secretary, Bridget Phillipson, said that the proposals amounted to telling most schools to “carry on as normal”.
She said that after two years of “pandemic chaos” the plan would leave parents, teachers and pupils “wondering where the ambition for children’s futures is”.
“For almost eight in 10 schools, the education secretary’s big idea is to carry on as normal,” she said.
“Hundreds of thousands of primary children live in an area with no ‘good’ schools, the gap in learning between the most and least well-off pupils has widened during Covid, four in 10 young people leave education without the skills they need and young people are experiencing a mental health crisis. Yet the government has no answers,” Ms Phillipson said.
Labour pointed out that 75 per cent of schools had days that met the average length of between six hours 15 minutes and six hours 35 minutes.
Headteachers have also said they are “unconvinced” of the benefits of a minimum expectation for the length of the school week.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “We are unconvinced by the benefits of introducing a minimum expectation on the length of the school week of 32.5 hours.”
He said that the vast majority of schools already met this expectation or came “very close” to meeting it, and that it was important to understand the factors that might lead to a shorter week in some schools.
“For example, it may be the case in some rural schools that start and finish times are affected by transport arrangements,” he said.
“Adding time on to the school week may sound straightforward, but there are many issues which need to be considered in individual schools, and we would encourage the government not to rush any changes.”
“We look forward to seeing the full details of the schools white paper and the Send and alternative provision green paper,” he added.
On Tuesday, the long-awaited Special Educational Needs and Disability (Send) Review will also be published.
And Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “We hope that during the year before these proposals are implemented, there can be a review of the evidence supporting this plan.”
“Simply adding five or ten minutes to a day is unlikely to bring much, if any, benefit. The government says it will be guided by evidence – they need to meet that undertaking,” he said.
Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the NEU teaching union, said that the education sector was “crying out” for a Schools White Paper and Send Green Paper that addressed “the huge challenges that battered and bruised schools face to support all their pupils during and beyond a pandemic”.
“The expectation of a 32.5 hour week for pupils is a classic example of Government trying to hit a target but missing the point,” he said.
“The vast majority of schools’ days are of this length or a little more or less. We are looking for much more sophisticated change.”
“Where is the multifaceted recovery plan? What should happen in the extra 10-15 mins some pupils will now spend in school? How will pupil wellbeing and education staff workloads be improved to ensure their time together is as impactful as both want and deserve?” he added.
“Children, parents and those that teach and support them need more from a government policy platform than easy headlines like this.”
Mr Zahawi also defended the knighthood of his predecessor Sir Gavin Williamson, who was twice sacked as a cabinet minister and oversaw the school exams fiasco.
He told the Sophy Ridge On Sunday programme: “I’m going to say something to you which isn’t universally popular, I know, but … it’s T-Levels, the Skills White Paper and the Skills Bill which is about to receive Royal Assent was Gavin Williamson’s work.”
He added: “Gavin Williamson’s work on skills, T-Levels, the lifelong learning entitlement will transform the fortunes of young people in our country who may not want to go to university. For that alone I think he deserves that knighthood.”
Mr Zahawi declined to criticise Sir Gavin for cancelling exams during the pandemic, saying he had “very little choice” but to take that action.