Are longer school days and shorter holidays the answer?

Following on from our previous blog which reported that education secretary Michael Gove has argued for longer school hours and shorter holidays, partly to level the playing field with our global competitors, we take a look at the system in Finland. It’s one of the highest-ranked countries for education, but pupils study for some of the fewest hours in the developed world. So what else works for the Finns?

Speaking at the Spectator Education Conference, Michael Gove proposed that pupils in England should study for longer hours and take shorter school holidays. The suggestion from the education secretary, as quoted by The Telegraph and other national media, was that:

“If you look at the length of the school day in England, the length of the summer holiday – and we compare it to the extra tuition and support that children are receiving elsewhere – then we are fighting or actually running in this global race in a way that ensures that we start with a significant handicap.”

In fact Michael Gove’s figures are disputed: the average total number of “intended instruction hours” for OECD countries (PDF) in 2011 was apparently 6,732 hours, whereas English pupils already spend around 7,250 hours in the classroom; Japanese students spend around 6,300 hours ‘being instructed’, while Koreans spend just less than 6,000, and Finland – one of the top-performing in PISA tests – a mere 5,750 hours.

Finnish teachers are highly valued


What are the other differences with the Finnish system which seems so successful? In a BBC comparison between various countries earlier in the year, Prof Kristiina Kumpulainen from the Department of Teacher Education at the University of Helsinki, set out a few.

Teachers, she said, are highly valued and respected in Finland, with a masters qualification needed even to teach at primary level.

She described the typical classroom as a “very interactive space where pupils can challenge the teacher”; classes are between 15 and 25 across primary and secondary, and the environment is relaxed and educationally supportive “where children are granted authority and accountability in and for learning”.

And now, relax…


And competition is also a factor according to the professor, who said: “There are no national examinations or rankings. We don’t have that culture of comparing schools. If a school is not doing well it is not closed down. It is given more resources.”

This 2012 BBC video report ‘Relaxed vs strict: Which type of education is best?’ takes a closer look at a relaxed class in Finland, and speaks to teacher Marjaana Arovaara, who describes herself to her pupils as their “school mother”. The video contrasts this with the exam-orientated ‘achievement hot-houses’ of South Korea (which also scores well on OECD Pisa), and a school in Brazil which takes three ‘shifts’ of pupils a day..

Should we adopt a more relaxed teaching style like Finland, where pupils even learn about relaxation and call their teacher by their first name? Or should we rather take a more exam-orientated approach like South Korea? Discuss!

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