Katie Ashford is an English teacher in a secondary school in the Midlands. These are her individual views.
Lessons begin at ten past the hour. Or that’s when the bell goes, at least. By the time the kids have arrived from their last lesson, have caught up with their friends and faffed about with their lockers, it’s nearly quarter past. After they have come in to my classroom and are eventually sat down, after Jamie has aimlessly wandered around the class giving out books, and after I have managed to get them to settle, ten minutes of the lesson have vanished, and we begin.
During my first year of teaching, I wasted around ten minutes each lesson as I scrambled to get my pupils to settle down and start. It doesn’t seem like much, does it? It’s only ten minutes! What harm could that possibly do? However, once you add those minutes together, the number becomes rather more frightening. Ten minutes per lesson: for an NQT who teaches 20 lessons a week, that’s over three hours of time faffing about handing out books and hurrying kids along every single week. And when we think that there are 39 weeks of school every year, the figure becomes very scary, very quickly.
Of the 780 hours I spent in the classroom as a trainee, I wasted almost 120 of my pupils’ precious learning hours trying to get them ready to begin the lesson. One hundred and twenty hours. That’s a lot of time. What’s possible in one hundred and twenty hours? Jack Bauer could save the world 5 times; a Lord of the Rings fan could watch the entire extended version of the trilogy ten times in a row; Usain Bolt could win gold in the 100m sprint 43000 times over; Jamie Oliver could cook 480 reasonably priced hot dinners. However you might choose to spend it, one message is crystal clear: many great things could be achieved if we all had an extra hundred or so hours spare.
But what could our pupils achieve in that time? Schools spend thousands of pounds each year on additional intervention classes, entering them for ‘intensive’ revision sessions, putting on extra classes after school, at weekends and in the holidays, and paying for external tutors to run booster sessions. In education, time always seems short. Teachers are crying out for more lesson time, especially with year 11s in the run up to exams or with those kids whose attendance is generally quite poor. Time is a precious commodity in education, but a large proportion of it seems to get thrown away, as if we have time to burn.
As a newbie at the end of the first year, with little grip on the routines and structures that were necessary for the smooth running of my classroom, I was absolutely positive that I had failed to use the time effectively. At that point in my career, wearied and wavering after the most intense twelve months of my life, I had no idea how I could fix this. But the numbers were clear: I needed to do something.
More time for more learning
I was fortunate enough to be offered a couple of internships working at two excellent schools in London over the holiday. I was invited to help out during their summer school transition programmes, where the pupils were explicitly taught exactly what the rules and routines of the school were. At King Solomon Academy in Westminster, the children file through the halls in silence between lessons. Guided by a teacher, they make their way from one lesson to the next absolutely seamlessly. Lessons began promptly and in an orderly fashion. I was astounded at how efficient everything was: no time for locker gossip or corridor catch-ups whatsoever, just more time for more learning. It was seriously impressive.
Similarly, staff at Reach Academy in Feltham taught their pupils how to lay out their desks and how to enter and exit a classroom. The school ran like clockwork, with everybody in their place at the right time, and no time wasted at all. Every minute was used for learning, and nothing else. Once again, I was completely blown away. These schools showed me what was possible: it was unlike anything I had ever seen, or imagined, before.
Both schools have the very highest of expectations of their pupils. Not only do they expect them to learn and succeed, to behave and to be courteous, they expect them to appreciate that every single minute of their education is a gift, and that such a gift should not be taken for granted. At my school, in my classroom, I realised, the expectation was not quite so high.
It goes without saying that I finished the internships buzzing, on a teaching and learning high, and excited to take the ideas into my own classroom that September. I was determined not to waste any more of my pupils’ time than I had to, but I quickly learnt that it is incredibly difficult to do without school level structures. As every teacher knows, the key to good behaviour management and the way to set a strong, productive school ethos is consistency. If only one or two teachers are trying to implement such strategies on their own, they take much longer to embed and are less likely to have the level of impact they have at the schools I have visited.
Time for a change?
Many schools spend thousands trying to make up for time missed and to get pupils up to speed, but the reality is that we aren’t even using the time we already have very efficiently. It may seem like I’m being pernickety, or that the schools I describe above are exceptional and their systems impossible to replicate, but my instincts tell me that this is not true. The methods used by some of the most efficient schools in the country do require upfront investment and staff buy in, but once they have been embedded and have become part of the culture of the institution, they are simply habits practiced by all. These schools are thinking proactively about how to get the most out of every minute. Many other schools wait until those hundreds of hours have gone by and react impulsively, running along behind, out of breath, desperately trying to catch up, and rarely ending up ahead.
What would our schools be like if we didn’t waste hundreds of hours each year? What difference would it make to our pupils? What difference would it make to their futures? If Jack Bauer can save the world five times whilst we are collecting in glue sticks and waiting for kids to pick up books from their lockers, we need to do a lot better. And we can. With a little bit of upfront investment and explicit teaching, with visionary leadership and unrelenting consistency, we can start making the most of every single second, and proving to our pupils that there really isn’t any time to waste.
Edapt is a trade union alternative providing individual support and protection for teachers in allegations and employment issues.