Flexible schooling: how it sparked a ‘hysterical’ response and what families really think

<span>Photograph: David Kelly/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: David Kelly/The Guardian

When a Brisbane high school proposed reducing its classroom time by an hour and 10 minutes per week, there were some “slightly hysterical” responses, its parents and citizens’ association president recalls.

“Someone did actually say to one of my P&C team: ‘Well, you’ll be responsible for all the pregnancies’,” Erin Williams says.

Some worried the Gap state high school’s year 7 and 8 students were going to be “left in the wilderness” – others feared the local shopping centre was going to be struck by a “crime wave”.

Still, the school went through with its plan to give students the last session of Monday afternoon off class this year, in order to allow teachers time to focus on improving results in their classrooms and get on top of burgeoning workloads.

The controversy soon faded and Williams says her fellow parents have mostly embraced the new model.

“No one has talked about it since term one,” she says. “Crime rates haven’t increased – and no one’s gotten pregnant as far as we know!”

Flexible school hours became front-page news in Queensland last month, when the state government updated its policy by which schools can apply to change their hours, in what a spokesperson said would “ensure a consistent approach”.

While the department is at pains to portray its reforms as modest, requests from a couple of schools for four-day weeks prompted fierce debate. Some on social media linked reducing classroom hours to the state’s incendiary debate around youth crime, warning it would only give children “more time to get into mischief”.

Yet numerous schools – big and small, city and country, public and private – have already opted to amend their hours in order to better meet the needs of teachers, parents and students. Guardian Australia set about finding out what they had learned.

‘So many benefits’

Wendy Henning is a cattle and crop farmer whose four daughters were educated at Teelba – “a unique little Queensland state school”.

“It’s just a school in a paddock, it has a gun club community centre beside it, and that’s it,” Henning says. “There’s no town, as such.”

Last year, the primary school had 17 students.

Henning describes Teelba as “in the middle of everywhere but not quite anywhere.” Towns such as Roma, St George, Goondiwindi and Dalby are a minimum 90-minute drive each way, meaning children were being pulled out of school when their family had a doctor’s appointment in town, or had to have the car serviced, or pick up tools.

So 18 years ago, one of the six families who sent their children to Teelba suggested a nine-day fortnight to reduce absenteeism. The students would be in class for 45 minutes longer each day in exchange for taking one day off every two weeks.

After sending four children through the nine-day model, Henning – who is now on the federal committee of the Isolated Children’s Parents’ Association – says there were “so many benefits”.

While the department is at pains to portray its reforms as modest, requests from a couple of schools for four-day weeks prompted fierce debate

Henning says before the community backed the proposal they needed the support of every family at the school – and that required a trial, evidence and annual review.

“It had to be evidence-based,” she says. “And, very fortunately, that was what the evidence found: the children were still achieving and, in some cases, were achieving at higher levels.”

Attendance improved as families scheduled trips to town on those school-free weekdays. For Henning, it meant one less 60km round-trip to school a fortnight – which adds up, she says, over the 13 years she spent driving her girls to Teelba.

There were benefits at home too. During periods of mustering or harvest, the spare day meant extra hands in the cattle yards or out in the fields.

“It was an opportunity for the kids to be a part of the family business and the family dynamic,” Henning says. “It is also really lovely for the older ones to have that extra day to be with their younger siblings.”

Prof Pasi Sahlberg says schools like Teelba are a “brilliant example” of harnessing the “wisdom of the community”.

“Schools and their communities often know much better what works for them and how to run the school than the governments, often far away,” says Sahlberg, a professor in educational leadership at the University of Melbourne.

While the evidence on whether flexible hours alone improve results in schools is mixed, Sahlberg says it is “quite clear” there is no correlation between the amount of time students spend in classrooms and what they get out of them.

“In fact, it goes the other way around,” he says.

Australian students, he says, will on average spend more time in classrooms over the course of the schooling than students in any other OECD nation. They do not, however, top educational outcomes.

“So the conversation has to move away from how many hours and minutes of instruction do children get,” Sahlberg says.

Instead, he says, schools should be asking themselves: what is the best way to arrange hours so that schools are “a good place for everybody to be and where everybody is happy”.

“That will definitely influence the quality of education there.”

‘Making students more responsible’

In the case of the 1,649-student Gap SHS, according to Williams, initial concerns among some in the school community have subsided.

Her son, year 10 student Darcy, used his class-free time to get heavily involved in putting on a school musical. Called The Fungus, the show was based on a dystopian novel written by a student, reworked with a few more jokes and a musical score all produced by their classmates.

Her daughter, Scarlett, walks to the home of a friend, where there is parent supervision, with a group of fellow year 8s.

“They claim to be studying together,” Williams says.

But even if they are not, she adds, Scarlett’s grades have not suffered and Williams is glad her daughter has time to cement friendships.

Ninety minutes down the Pacific Motorway at Palm Beach Currumbin state high school, the story sounds remarkably similar.

The Gold Coast school’s P&C president, Kaylee Campradt, says there were a “few mutterings” about plans for its 2,594 students to have Monday afternoons free back in 2021.

And, yes, there were “a few teething problems” when it was trialled the following year – not least of which was shoppers’ surprise when hordes of schoolchildren descended on the local shopping centre early on a Monday afternoon.

But Campradt says the school offered options to supervise younger students, such as her son, who was in year 7.

“He could trot over to the primary school that he had just graduated from and join in programs to help the prep kids learn to read, which I think is just adorable,” she says.

In the end, he mainly tries to knock off his week’s worth of homework to free more time during the week to play basketball.

His older sister, who is now in year 11, drives to school and is afforded more freedom.

“To be honest, in the summertime, if that means she’s going to the beach and having a swim before coming home, that’s not a bad thing either,” Campradt says.

Nearly two years in, the community has adapted, Campradt says – elderly people in the area know not to lunch at the shopping centre at 1.30pm on a Monday. For most parents, Monday afternoon is a non-issue.

“Those are just the hours we do school now,” Campradt says.

The changes in those two high schools embraced by the Williams and Campradt families are relatively modest, but what about a four-day week for senior students?

Williams says, if done right, her family would be up for it. Like many, they saw, during the pandemic, that home-schooling could be done.

“I like the idea of making students and kids more responsible,” she says.

But, then, Williams runs her own business, her children are “participation kids” and she works closely with teachers – and sees how hard they are working.

Considering the parents with more rigid work structures, more “free-range kids” and less of an insight into how the teaching profession has changed, the Gap SHS mother is unsure whether a four-day week would – at least for now – have the backing of the school community.

A spokesperson for the Queensland Teachers Union said staff valued the flexible arrangements in place at some schools to put towards professional development and working on school improvement plans.

“It is focused and deliberate and that it is extremely useful in helping both staff and students,” they said.

Explaining the policy changes around school hours on ABC radio last month, Queensland’s education minister, Grace Grace, stressed repeatedly that reform was not “a green light” for a four-day week.

Instead, she said, it was about establishing “checks and balances” for those schools that wanted to “explore” alternative ways of structuring their weeks. The policy, for example, charges principals with ensuring “appropriate supervision is provided for students” when schools start later than 9am or finish earlier than 3pm. And it only allows for changes “where the school community determines it provides benefits for students and families”.

For Sahlberg that is “the critical part of this story”. If the parents and students do not support flexible hours “it can be really harmful”, the University of Melbourne professor says.

“Families and students, they need to sign up for this.”