‘They say we are better educated than our
parents’ generation. What they mean is that we go to school longer. They are
not the same thing.

Douglas Yates

you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run, Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it’ Rudyard Kipling

‘Time is the coin of your life. It is the only coin you have, and only you can determine how it will be spent. Be careful lest you let other people spend it for you. Carl Sandburg

the poem ‘If’, (voted by the Nation as its favourite poem), Rudyard Kipling *
offers us some succinct advice on how to use time. At a first reading, ‘filling every minute with sixty
seconds run’
seems rather excessive, but the
question of how we use time is probably the most important decision we make,
day on day. I don’t think for a minute that Kipling meant us to keep constantly
busy (an assumption, I know, from this prolific writer), but that we value time
and don’t waste it. Working intensively on anything, determined or incidental,
is not to waste time, for the learning is often in the application; nor is
relaxing with a book or tracking a passing cloud. Invariably the biggest waste of time comes
from trying to multi-task with the result that nothing is completed

In education, the debate over how we use time usually translates
into the question of how many hours, days, weeks children need to spend at
school: how much learning and teaching time is enough and what is the optimum time
children should spend at school –not the same thing. It is a complex issue with
the loudest respondents being parents who have to negotiate child care,
finances and work commitments to provide cover for their children – and who
have plenty to say on why teachers don’t need such protracted holidays on the

When we look at how
our schools compare with countries where children don’t start formal learning
until age six, we should be asking questions. This was brought home to me when
I found that our grandson, aged four, had a longer school day than our 16 year
old neice in Australia. The whole debate about longer school days and shorter
holidays gets even more muddled, however, when we consider the increasing social
and child-care function of schools and, if we must, exam results as well, which
brings into play other factors that determine academic performance: school
type, socio-economic grouping, family, work habits, tutoring, quality of
teaching and resources. Yet even considering all these variables, the general consensus of government and educators is
still for more of the same, and for longer. By turning school into an endurance
test and equating time spent at school with outcomes, we invariably confuse the
quality of time with the quantity – and
therein lies the rub. Learning to
use time effectively (including discretionary time) is one of the most important
lessons we can give our children.

Yet how often are we told there is not enough time for
something to be done or that the task (whatever it is) cannot be done when all
that is needed is for more effort to be made or better use made of the hours
available? Something that needs to be done in a week instead of a fortnight can
usually be achieved if the effort is doubled, if a little ‘can do’ philosophy
is applied – the idea that if you want something done, give it to a busy
person. To get a job done, commitments may need to be reprioritised and time
and resources re-deployed, but if the attitude is right then we shouldn’t be deeming
the possible, impossible, the time insufficient.

This lesson can be applied directly
to education. In education, we should reconsider the amount of time children
spend on ‘primary’ learning. Personally, would think that a maximum pf three and a half
hours a day of focused learning is sufficient. Of course, there are caveats,
the main one being that there needs to be an accord and shared sense of purpose
and a positive attitude and shared sense of commitment between teachers and
students. This is still probably more learning time than many schools achieve
in a whole day where lessons are constantly interrupted or are reduced to exercises
in classroom management. In the same way, we shouldn’t make the mistake of
measuring learning by the amount of content taught, an approach implicit in the
current emphasis on content rich curricula (contrary to Yuri Haval Harari suggesting that ‘most of what we teach children in schools is irrelevant’ );
instead, let’s be real about what children need to learn and then (because we
have to) what they need to learn to pass an exam – there is a difference!

The rest of a school day could be given over to
secondary learning, probably via e-learning in which tutor groups to help guide
and facilitate learning, or cultural and physical activities. These need be no
less rigorous, but as they will be more aligned to the students’ own interests,
may be practical or investigative or be delivered by an external provider (e-learning), motivation should be
less of an issue. We are more likely to get more out of students if they know they
have some discretion over their learning and, more important, invest in it.

Of course, there are few areas of learning where time
use is so poor as in the setting of homework, where children are often cajoled
against their will to work under supervision of reluctant parents to produce
something set by teacherswho sahre the sense that it is a waste of time and
just something else to mark. Not all homework is like this, of course,
especially as students get older and the measure should be on whether it
represents an effective use of time. I always advocated at primary level, apart
from some very short and specific memory work (tables, vocabulary, spelling
words etc) that children should just be encouraged to read, and preferably not
off a tablet. The reality is that, even at senior level, prep has often been
more about filling time in an exercise teachers, parents and pupils dislike in
equal part. Trying to force tired and reluctant children to do meaningless
worksheets or some project work is not only futile, but can also serves to
reinforce a negative attitude to learning in the round.

In looking at workloads, attitude is all-important
especially in the elasticity of time with its ability to stretch or contract
according to need it. As a Head I remember being asked by a sports coach if could
have an extra sports practice each week. My immediate considerations was to ask
if the time they already had was well-used, i.e. was everyone punctual, knew what
they were doing and kept actively involved. The same in class: I would much
sooner the pupils had well- planned and stimulating lessons and are completely
focused rather than a tired and flabby diet of extra lessons and meaningless

Of all the time children have at school, the most
important is free time and the most important lesson, deciding how to use it
(acknowledging that many schools still believe ’the devil makes work for idle hands’ as their justification for
filling the days with extra activities. A better definition is that noted at
the outset, of treating time as a coin to spend, a lesson which is applicable to all of us. It
is a sad truth that too many parents and schools are scared to give children
the coin and would rather spend it for them. Yet of all the lessons children
need to learn, managing their own time is one of the most important. And they can only do that when they are
trusted with the coin.

* Despite being tainted by the anti-empire virus spread by neo-liberal
commentators and an increasing number of indignant university students