Will longer hours make healthier minds?

The new school development programme among other things has proposed extending school closing time from 1.30 to 3 p.m. Here we discuss the pros and cons
By Kumudini Hettiarachchi, Dhananjani Silva and Vimukthinie Nonis

Would school hours be extended to 3 p.m from the present closing time of 1.30 p.m? This was the question being asked by parents across the country this week following media reports. Assuring that no school will mandatorily be expected to extend its hours to 3 p.m. from 7.30 a.m.,

Education Minister Bandula Gunawardena said that the 1,000 secondary schools that will be upgraded across the country will have the freedom to do so, if parents and teachers requested it.

Referring to school hours, the Minister told the Sunday Times that though there were no regulations with regard to holding lessons until 3 in the afternoon, several schools were already doing so for the benefit of children.

Many are the students from such schools who have passed national examinations with high scores, he said citing the example of the Kuliyapitiya Central School and Gampaha’s Rathnavali Balika Vidyalaya.

Of the students who gain admission to universities every year, 1.9% are from Rathnavali Balika Vidyalaya. Even the Diyagana Kanishta (Primary) Vidyalaya has classes from 6.30 a.m. to 3 p.m.

A school in Kalpitiya holds extra sessions from 5-7 p.m. because engineers from the Norachcholai power plant teach the children mathematics and science, according to Mr. Gunawardena, while the newly-opened school at Pitipana, Homagama, has classes from 7.30 a.m. to 3 p.m., with Friday being sports day.

There are many rules at the Pitipana school, with parents being told that the children should be sent rice, sambol and one curry cooked at home rather than flour-based food which has been bought from a shop, it is learnt.

There were 4,200 applications for admission to this school with vacancies only for 640 while 1,200 teachers wanted to serve here though only 38 positions were available, Mr. Gunawardena pointed out.

Referring to the new school development scheme, the Minister said that the government has allocated funds to upgrade and develop one secondary school for every four or five primary schools in a particular area, from among the existing schools.

The plan is to develop a thousand such secondary schools so as to prevent not only the closure of small primary schools but also ease the pressure on popular secondary schools. “We are hoping to develop two or three main schools in each of the 300 Divisional Secretary Divisions in the country.”

Did you know that nationally there is “thadha bade” (pressure) to admit children only to 53 schools such as Ananda, Nalanda, he asks, explaining that the government wants these 1,000 secondary schools to focus on five important areas of study to provide skills to the children. They will be ICT, English, mathematics, science and aesthetic subjects and sports.

Now ICT is taught only in Grade 10 of the government schools, pointed out the Minister, but in these schools this subject will be introduced in Grade 6. The schools will be equipped with all facilities including laboratories for IT, language as well as science and maths. “We will provide IT labs with 50 computers to each school.”

Extended school hours will allow children to concentrate on these vital subjects and study them at length, if they wished, the Minister stressed, adding that such an extension is not compulsory.

It will also help children not to be bound to their books as they are now but indulge in aesthetics and also engage in sports. Those who are opposed to this seem to be teachers intent on giving tuition.

The school upgrading project is estimated to cost US$ 600 million, with organizations like the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, UNICEF, UNESCO and other foreign donor organisations chipping in.

The good and the bad

When the Sunday Times looked at the pros and cons of extending school hours, educationists said that longer hours will mean that children have more time for extra-curricular activities and to work in different societies (such as science, English, drama, photography etc) which will in turn help develop their personality.

Schools should have a system to evaluate and give marks to those who take part in the activities of these societies so that they can achieve success even if they don’t fare that well at examinations. Of the three types of learners, auditory (those who listen and learn), visual (those who see and learn) and kinesthetic (those who learn by doing), the current education system caters only to the first two categories. To promote kinesthetic learners, “hands on” activities should be introduced and teacher training in this sphere developed, an educationist said.

School is responsible for the development of a rounded personality, another educationist explained, pointing out that there is a national curriculum and a school curriculum. The school curriculum is the hidden one which will determine what type of a person is produced after 13 years in school. It will encompass emotional, spiritual and character development.

But what happens now is that children spend long hours at tuition classes, sometimes even cutting school. In a tuition class material is poured into the brain which is used as a warehouse. What they have learnt they will write on the question paper which is nothing but an exam-passing tactic.

The schools should facilitate the children to explore, invent and research and use the brain as a thinking machine to gain wisdom in time to come, it was pointed out.

When students become more active, they tend to learn by themselves. Extended hours will give them an opportunity to engage in various activities such as sports and other skills. This will help the school to move away from the concept of being an “exam factory”.

However, other educationists explained that traditional teachers will dislike the new system as they are forced to change the way of testing students. “If teachers are expected to be in school for longer times, their salaries will have to be increased according to their qualifications.”

Another view was that the culture of tuition will disappear and the system of evaluating the students will change.

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