On Fridays, the pub next to Forest Gate community school in east London starts filling up from 1pm. It has not always been this way, but ever since the school went down to a four-and-a-half-day week, it has been flooded with exhausted teachers keen to take advantage of their shorter week as quickly as possible.
Other teachers use the afternoon to spend more time with their children, go on a mini-break, catch up on work they would have done at the weekend, or attend the local mosque. The important thing is that the afternoon is theirs to choose how they spend it, says Simon Elliott, who leads the multi-academy trust that runs Forest Gate.
The initiative has been so successful that the school is now consulting on whether to reduce the week further, to four days.
Elliott opted to shorten the week after reading a series of alarming reports on professional stress and burnout for teachers. “If you look at the amount of work teachers do, they do more than similar professions and the workload is very high. I wanted to try and alleviate that pressure at a structural level,” he said.
To achieve this, he removed two pastoral periods from the schedule on Friday and added the four other 50-minute lessons on to weekdays. Children can stay on site to do homework or extracurricular activities.
Elliott said the change has resulted in happier, more energetic teachers – an internal survey showed 98% appreciated the change. Pupils, who often struggle to focus on Friday afternoons, say they enjoy the extra time to spend with friends, or doing extracurricular activities and homework, and have received higher grades since, leading to satisfied parents.
Tom Leather, a PE teacher, said the shorter working week had transformed his life. Before Covid, he went on weekend breaks to Europe, and now his wife is pregnant he is looking forward to having more time to spend with his new child, and later to pick them up from nursery.
“Knowing we’re allowed to leave at 12.10 on Friday means that morale is better. Happier teachers work harder and produce better days,” he said.
The move to four days is the subject of a new report by thinktank Autonomy, which is making the case for all schools to adopt a four-day week, reflecting a growing trend in the US where 1,600 schools have already shortened timetables.
The report argues that shortening the week would help reduce the high numbers of teachers who leave the profession by cutting their hours, which, at an average of 51, are among the longest in Europe. The UK’s Health and Safety Executive found that teaching staff report the highest rates of work-related stress, depression and anxiety in the UK.
The idea is popular among teachers, at least theoretically. Autonomy’s survey of 500 found that three-quarters would be interested in a 32-hour four-day week if pay is not cut, and over two-thirds said it would encourage them to remain in the profession.
Elliott said there were barriers to rolling this out at present, however, including childcare routines and longer days in school. “It would give people a lot of freedom, they can be creative in their spare time, and feel a bit more rested. The problems to solve are around the logistics of people’s lives.”
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said the union “would be happy to discuss any thinking about the structure of the school term and week”, although he has not received calls from members about a universal move to four days and the union’s main priorities to address retention are improved pay, flexible working and a supportive approach from government.
“Any suggested change would need to be supported by evidence that it would have a positive impact on pupil outcomes,” he said.
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Maintained schools are legally required to operate at least 190 school days a year and, now more than ever as children get back on track, we want all schools to be offering at least an average of 32.5 hours a week.”