The gulf in attainment between children from rich and poor backgrounds stubbornly persists. A quarter of children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds are below the expected level at the end of primary school compared to just 3% of their peers from well-off families. Many children are at a distinct disadvantage as they begin secondary school and are unlikely to catch up.
Under this government, high expectations have been pinned on schools to solve this problem. Low performing schools have been converted into academies, accountability systems have been introduced that require weaker schools to improve, and pupil premium funding targets resources on children from poor families.
Now it seems, the focus is shifting onto how children spend their time after the bell rings. The cross-party education select committee has suggested that longer school days are the answer to closing the education gap, giving children the space and time to do their homework. Education Minister Liz Truss added that a 12 hour school day could also provide space for taking part in the sort of enrichment activities that “our better schools already offer as a matter of course”.
The notion of a longer school day raises many questions about how the school system could and should support the learning and well-being of children and the needs of working parents, not to mention how changes would impact on teachers.
These issues are high on the agenda at NatCen Social Research, which is why we are pleased to have been awarded a grant by the Nuffield Foundation to carry out research to investigate how children spend their time out of school and how this relates to educational attainment. We have begun a 15 month study in collaboration with Prof Liz Todd and colleagues at Newcastle University to find out how involvement in different types of activities, such as school clubs, music lessons, language classes, childminders and tutoring, varies for 5 to 11 year olds from different backgrounds and what this means for their attainment at the end of primary school.
What’s particularly exciting about this project is that we hope to find out more about how and why certain types of activities are beneficial, drawing on and extending theories linking activities with outcomes. Whether school-based activities help children to engage with learning will be one aspect that we’ll be exploring.
Keep up-to-date with progress on the study here.