When the students of Manor High School return to the classroom at the end of August, they will find many things changed. They must wear face masks on the bus; they will find hand sanitiser dispensers in every corridor. And they will find that every lesson lasts five hours.
“Social distancing goes against the whole architecture of schools,” says Liam Powell, Manor High’s headteacher. “My school is a 1960s school, but even modern builds just aren’t designed with that in mind.”
Even within the context of the global pandemic, Manor High is working within particularly trying circumstances. It is in Oadby, Leicestershire, and many of its pupils and staff are being held in Leicester’s regional lockdown. Social distancing, then, is particularly important here, and by implementing five-hour lessons – interspersed with staggered breaks and lunchtimes – the school’s leaders hope to minimise mingling and encourage high-quality learning.
The downside, as anyone who has dozed through an interminable double maths class will tell you, is obvious: children are easily bored. So the plan has attracted much curiosity, and some scepticism. How long can a child stay focused for so long? And how can teachers make the best of the situation?
Powell is optimistic that the experiment – the school will be giving a report to the trust of which it is a part and will share its findings with the world of education – will yield good results. “I think once people get over the initial shock of five hours of a single subject, they’ll start to spot the opportunities.”
He explains how an hour-long lesson is really much less than that, once you factor in arrival, packing up, and dispatching the pupils early enough for them to reach their next lesson on time.
A longer day would allow deeper engagement with a subject. “Let’s take a GCSE class. You could actually sit down with the children online” – should there be another local or national lockdown – “or in school, and go through a past paper with them. You could give them time to do the whole thing, or a section of it, and then go through the paper together and do a whole-class marking session.”
It may, at times, be challenging for the pupils. “But if you think about it, teachers every day make their lessons varied and interesting, and they have a variety of activities within it,” says Powell.
Education experts are curious and in some cases excited. “In the normal world,” says Ross McGill, “sticking a kid in a room for five hours is not conducive for learning,” says Ross McGill, a teacher turned education writer who is the founder of Teacher Toolkit. “Given the virus, I would be happy to give a green card.”
To get a very rough estimate of a child’s attention span, McGill says, you add a two or three to their age. Thus a 12-year-old might be able to concentrate on a task for 15 minutes, and a sixth-former about 20. Teachers will have to divide lessons into chunks, as in many cases they already do.
“And I guess any sensible school and teacher will have their kids getting a bit of fresh air through the window, moving around, putting their heads down, meditating, that type of stuff.”
McGill points out that normal school timetabling, a regimented rotation through discrete disciplines, has more to do with the Victorian model of education than with the needs of modern students. Perhaps a new approach might be useful, depending on the school’s situation and personnel.
Imagining trying to organise a timetable like Manor High’s, McGill says: “I might have 10 maths teachers, but I might have one that’s a brand new NQT (newly-qualified teacher) that I don’t really want to leave with my most challenging class for five hours a day. Otherwise, they’re just going to leave the school or the teaching profession altogether. It’s a challenge.”
Murray Morrison, who runs the online learning programme Tassomai, worries that the experiment could go “pear-shaped – who knows, maybe a couple of kids are absent and that may disrupt the whole scheme of work for the year.”
But the idea “feels good in theory,” he says, provided that teachers fill their lessons with novelty and variation. “Attention is really difficult to manage, but teachers are professionals who won’t be short of tactics to make these lessons work.”
Modern cognitive science tells us that learning is best done via “spaced repetition”, whereby students review material at increasingly infrequent intervals. One five-hour lesson seems inferior in this regard to five one-hour lessons, but Morrison thinks teachers will be able to find solutions.
“It will slightly change the maths of their planning, but they’re not that scientific about it. They’ll just make sure each lesson that things within the lesson and in between lessons, things are recapped. But also, that’s what homework is for.”
The general verdict is that this is a fascinating pedagogical experiment. Lynne Mackey, an educational psychologist, refers to the “Copernican Plan”, an American concept of a schoolday with long, in-depth classes. The plan didn’t catch on, but was reviewed positively by a team from Harvard University.
“The youngsters actually reported enjoying their lessons more,” says Mackey. “They felt challenged and they got a deeper understanding of what they were learning about.”
Mackey notes the likely pitfalls of boredom and of children falling hugely behind by missing a day, but expresses excitement about a five-hour lesson’s potential for cross-curricular learning and for cultivating useful attitudes towards study.
Referring to Professor Guy Claxton’s work on building learning power, Mackey said: “If you think about the skills you need for the world of work in the future, and as a future learner, that quality of being persistent and pursuing something through to the end and having that challenge is quite important, really.”
Manor High is one of several schools to be attempting day-long lessons, and in some ways is simply enacting what primary schools, in which classes have the same teacher every day of every year, have been doing for centuries.
Rated “Good” by Ofsted, Manor High has the advantage of being the top school for attainment and progress in Leicester and Leicestershire: as Powell says, its children “love learning.” The five-hour-lesson experiment is fascinating, but whether its results will be universally applicable is less clear.
“Other schools have gone for different plans,” says Powell, mentioning that some schools have cut certain subjects from the curriculum. “I think each school has to base it on the architecture of their school, and the profile of their students and the age range of the students and, and lots of it and their local context.”
His scheme depends greatly on the skill of his staff, who will have to optimise their approach as they go along. “Like they say,” observes Morrison of the five-hour lessons, “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth. But this sounds quite exciting. I’d quite like to try it. And I’d quite like to be at that school where they’re doing it because I think they could reveal some amazing pedagogical benefits.”
Education is slow to change. There is great status quo bias and it is difficult to conduct research on radical ideas when they risk interfering with children’s education. The five-hour lesson experiment, then, is a rare opportunity to see what a different education system might look like. Britain’s teachers, pupils and parents will watch with interest.