Time is Precious

How much time in school, is actually spent learning?

I’ve been in the education system, one way or another, for 30 of my 35 years: first as a school pupil, then as a University student, and then as a teacher. Since we made the decision to home educate our children, I started thinking about the typical school day. And how many of the hours that a child spends in school, are actually spent “learning”.

**Edited to add: In this article, by “learning”, I am talking about formal curriculum learning; the type of “learning” that local authority staff sometimes expect home educators to provide details of. I am fully aware, and in agreement, that all kinds of other learning take place throughout the day, such as at playtimes and during assemblies etc, but for the purposes of this article (which was written to reassure home educators that they do not have to sit their child at the table to do “learning” for hours every day) I deduct that time, because it is not “curriculum learning” or “formal learning”. Of course, these times happen naturally during home education as well. I’m not denying that learning happens everywhere. But home educators, worryingly, are sometimes told by local authority staff, that they should be doing 4/5 hours of curriculum learning per day. My intention here is to show that really that is not necessary and unrealistic.**

So here is my take on it.

Firstly, I’d like to point out that I am basing my calculations on my own experience of the UK primary schools I have taught in. The day length, the timetable, the efficiency (or lack of it) in and between lessons is based purely on my own teaching experience. However, the schools I have taught in have been pretty average, middle of the road, state mainstream, Ofsted-rated Good schools, so it’s likely that other schools wouldn’t be wildly different.

Secondly, I want to point out that I am not anti-school, and I think many teachers do an amazing job, under very difficult circumstances. It is not so much that time is wasted in schools, more that a lot of time in the school day is spent on routines and procedures that may be necessary when you have 400 learners in one building and you are charged with providing every one of them with an efficient, differentiated curriculum, but they are simply not necessary in the home ed environment. A lot of my “deductions” below, come from the extra time needed to mass-educate in this way. It’s not the fault of the teachers, or the schools, it is the nature of the education system.

So….. How much time is spent actually learning?

Each school day lasts from 9:00 to 3:15.
That’s 6 hours and 15 minutes.

But not all of that is learning time:

Deduct the 15 minute morning break and the 1 hour lunch break.

Deduct the 10 minute “register and notices” time for morning and again for the afternoon, and the 10 minute end of day “packing up, coat-fetching, giving out letters” time.

Deduct the daily 20 minute assembly, which usually exists to either practise a religion, or encourage conformity with stories based around following school rules (or “values” or something similar), or celebrate the fact that they have complied and conformed and earned their merits or certificates for behaving well and following rules. None of which are necessary if you are educated at home.

Deduct the first 5 minutes of each of the 4 main lessons, because coming in after an energetic, exhilarating bout of relative freedom on the playground takes time, and because children are not robots who can instantly switch from loud, physical exertion and play, to a focused, concentrating, learning mindset at the flick of a switch, or the ring of a bell, or the blow of a whistle.

Deduct the final 5 minutes of each of those lessons, as this is tidying up time, collecting book time, deciding who’s on whose team at playground football time, sitting up straight time, arms folded, legs straight, looking at the teacher, waiting to be dismissed time.

Deduct 10 minutes from each of those 4 lessons for the time simply spent taking a brain break (or more likely a boredom break), because even as adults we can rarely stay fully focused on a task for an hour, unless it is a real passion, so we take little breaks: fetch a drink, have a little stretch or walk about, go to the toilet, ask a friend how they are getting on, or just let our minds wander for a few minutes before getting back on-task. Kids do this too, and it’s natural, until it’s metaphorically beaten out of them in the classroom environment.

Deduct 5 minutes from each session, for the time that is wasted when the teacher has to deal with behaviour issues before continuing the instructions, or the time you spend waiting for an answer from somebody else that you already know, even though your hand was first up, but the teacher always has to count to ten before asking anyone and then always picks someone else because they have to target their questions fairly to all pupils.

Deduct 5 minutes (at least) from the day, for the time spent walking in single file, as the teacher herds the class from one room to another, or to the hall, or the playground.

So far we have deducted 3 hours and 50 minutes from the school day.

Our 6 hours and 15 minutes is now down to 2 hours and 25 minutes. And that’s on a good day.

This equates to 12 hours and 5 minutes per week.

However, in an average school week there are whole time-tabled sessions that are pointless, which serve no purpose in relation to learning, or can be discounted because they simply do not apply in the home ed setting.

For example, the hour spent singing in “hymn practise” – see my thoughts on assemblies above.

And during each of the two PE lessons, 20 minutes (10 mins at start, 10 mins at end) is spent collecting kit, getting changed, and waiting for the slow coaches to tie the laces on their trainers. Also deduct another 5 minutes from each of these lessons for the walk to and from the changing rooms and to whichever sports pitches are being used that lesson.

Deduct the half hour PSHE lesson, because in home education you live this stuff. You don’t sit and learn it in a 30 minute lesson; it is part of your everyday life, running continuously through everything you do.

Deduct the 20 minute “golden time” – the reward for complying all week, and the necessary motivation, fed to children in order to keep classroom-based learning going.

These add up to another 2 hours and 40 minutes, that I’m deducting from my weekly total.

So, in a week that started with 31 hours and 15 minutes, we are now down to 9 hours and 25 minutes.

Averaged over the 5 days in the week, that makes 1 hour and 53 minutes, per day.

In a school year there are 190 days (I’ve already taken out the holidays and the teacher training days).

Deduct 1 bank holiday and 4 (as a rough average) sick days (or occasional sneaky holiday days because going one day before the end of term meant saving £300 in flight and hotel costs – who can blame you?).

So 185 days.

That makes 348 hours and 25 minutes of useful learning time per year. So far.

Just a few more “dead” hours to take off, from across the year…

Deduct 2 hours for sitting as an audience, watching other class’s Christmas plays (also known as final dress rehearsals) and 2 hours watching other class’s End of Year plays (it may be fun to watch, and I’m not saying they shouldn’t, but I’m deducting it for its lack of learning value).

Deduct half an hour for waiting in line to have your school photos taken.

Deduct an hour for the Christmas service, and another for the Easter service. Ok, so maybe your family is religious, but if that’s the case, you’d be doing these things at home anyway, wouldn’t you?

Deduct 2 hours for the assessment tests in maths and reading at the end of term 1, which serve no purpose for learning, other than to obtain a number by which the school can “track the progress” of a child, though it is not really progress it tracks, but rather their ability to answer questions in the way the answer booklet requires to get a mark.

Repeat this for the tests at the end of terms 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 (except for a year 6 child, in which case these figures should be doubled).

Deduct 2 hours for the afternoon of the class Christmas parties. And another 2 hours for the afternoon of the Christmas film.

Deduct the entire last day of the school year, which is spent colouring, playing games or watching DVDs.

Deduct 2 hours for time spent traveling on a coach or train or walking, on a school trip day, unless you want to count the game of noughts and crosses, top trumps and I spy that fill these journeys.

Deduct half an hour for each term, for over-running class assemblies or “Achievement” assemblies – please no more assemblies.

Deduct half an hour for the ritual end of year whole school assembly, in which many goodbyes and teacher send offs occur, and which may only be half an hour, but in the late July afternoon heat in a school hall packed with sweaty children and sweatier teachers, feels like a lot longer.

Deduct half an hour for all the times over the year that the head-teacher has to come to your class to have a serious discussion (telling-off) about certain things that have been going on, of such a serious nature that all learning has to stop while he reminds the whole class of those school rules, even though everybody knows full well which one or two people were involved, and why do the whole class always get the blame anyway?

Which takes the total number of useful learning hours throughout the year down to 315 hours and 55 minutes.

Averaging that out over the school year, we are now down to just 100 minutes per school day.

This is what schools class as full-time and efficient education, as set out by law.

Considering that if you home educate, you are in your learning environment every one of the 365 days in the year, this equates to 51 minutes per day.

Just 51 minutes of learning per day, would achieve the same length of time spent learning, as a schooled child.

As I said earlier, I’m not anti-school. 51 minutes per day, actively learning, sounds brilliant to me. But what about all the other hours spent in school?

Our family time is too precious for that.