Ministers need to be cautious about lengthening the school day or changing holidays as a means for pupils to catch up after Covid, the head of Ofsted has said, as Gavin Williamson called for a “transformative” reform to the schools system following the pandemic.
Williamson confirmed that the government would examine ideas including a five-term school year, or longer school days, as schools in England fully reopen on Monday.
The education secretary said efforts to help pupils catch up could be a catalyst for revolutionising schools, likening it to the 1944 Education Act, which created the postwar system of local education authorities and sought to remove many glaring inequalities.
But Amanda Spielman, the head of Ofsted, the schools inspectorate for England, said that while it was vital that children “do get their full ration of schooling”, ministers should be cautious about rushing through any changes.
“I think one of the really important things is to learn from the experiments that have happened in the past,” she told Sky’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday show. “There’s no point adding time here, or moving time there, if you don’t get a groundswell of support.
“If children simply don’t turn up for extra time, or summer schools for example, you could end up putting a lot of effort into something that doesn’t achieve the objective. So my concern is to go with the grain of what parents will embrace.”
Spielman said that over the past couple of decades, a series of experiments had been carried out with five-term school years: “I don’t think many of those have persisted. I don’t know the reasons why, but I think it’s really important to learn, to make sure that people understand why they haven’t been a longstanding success in the past.”
Speaking before Spielman on the same programme, Williamson said a review by Sir Kevan Collins, the government’s newly appointed education recovery commissioner, would leave “no stone unturned” in terms of possible changes.
“It’s a whole range of different proposals that we’re looking at – whether it’s a five-term year, whether it’s lengthening the school day,” Williamson said. “But also measures such as enhancing the support we give to teachers, supporting them in their professional development.”
He continued: “I would see this as one of those moments, a bit like the 1944 education reform act, that came out of the second world war, about how we can be transformative in terms of changing and improving the opportunities for young people. But it’s got to be evidence-based. We’ve got to look at what’s going to have the biggest positive impact on children’s lives.”
Children returning to secondary schools from Monday will be asked to wear masks in classrooms if distancing cannot be maintained, but the regulations have been criticised for being confusing.
But Williamson said he was confident it would work well, pointing to mask use in the autumn term, before the third lockdown in England: “What we saw during that period was there were incredibly large numbers of pupils that followed the rules. It worked very, very well.”
Spielman said she was also hopeful about both mask use, and the regime of coronavirus testing for secondary pupils.
“Children are adaptable and flexible,” she said. “I think they can live with a little bit of inconvenience for a fews weeks.
“I really hope that the whole paraphernalia of masks and testing is only necessary for a short time. I think we’ve got some reasons to be optimistic.”