Last week, the Welsh education minister Jeremy Miles announced a £2 million programme to trial new approaches to the timing of the school day. In the two-year pilot, participating schools will provide learners with the opportunity to take part in music, art, sports, and other activities after core school hours, to build rich social and cultural knowledge. As well as supporting individual children’s health and wellbeing, the policy could also be a powerful way of addressing child poverty in the round.
Schools have a unique place within their communities. As our Cost of Learning in Lockdown research has shown, school is often one of the only places that children from low-income families can access sport and arts, or play freely with friends in a safe environment. Activities on school premises are found to be more accessible to children in low income households than activities elsewhere, and often easier to reach than many cultural institutions. In many areas, they are the only community spaces still available for public use. Schools alone can’t be expected to solve poverty, but with an extended school day, they can and do support children’s development and learning, promote mental health and wellbeing, mitigate the effects of child poverty, and help prevent poverty by supporting parents to work.
Keeping schools open to the community before 9am and after 3pm allows parents, especially mothers, to work, and increases the range of jobs they’re able to access. Finding work that fits neatly within current school hours is very challenging for many women across Wales, especially those living in rural or poorly-connected communities. And we know that having any job isn’t always enough to tackle child poverty, because almost three-quarters of children in poverty live in working households in Wales. To tackle child poverty, we need a strategy that directly removes systemic barriers to well-paid, decent work. In addition to reducing poverty levels, increasing family income has been shown to be one of the most effective ways to improve educational attainment.
There is already clear evidence that offering enrichment activities after school can contribute to a child’s social and educational development. Many schools in Wales already offer extensive free after-school clubs, which children and their families value. In the best examples, children take the lead in designing, planning and running the provision. With the right structure, after-school provision can be an integral part of a community school approach, building deep and supportive links with parents, carers and the wider community.
All children can benefit from enriching after-school activities, but evaluations of programmes in England show that they offer the greatest benefit to the most disadvantaged children and families. However, the provision needs clarity of purpose, sufficient funding, and a commitment to universal access in order to see the greatest benefits for the most disadvantaged learners. Targeting provision solely at ‘the most needy’ children risks stereotyping and further marginalising them.
In order to fully realise the benefits of extra time at school, it’s important to work with children and their families to co-create the activities on offer. Participation should be voluntary, accessibility must be a priority, and the purpose should primarily be about enriching a child’s day and offering enjoyable activities to support their health, wellbeing and happiness. To ensure this is always the case, children must have a meaningful voice in the design and evaluation of these activities.