Tom Burkard is a Visiting Professor of Education Policy at the University of Derby. He is the co-author of the Sound Foundations reading and spelling programmes, which are rapidly gaining recognition as the most cost-effective means of preventing reading failure.
We count ourselves among the staunchest of Michael Gove's supporters: after all, his 2010 white paper put most of our education policy proposals into action.
Considering the fate of the last education secretary to challenge the blob*, we admire his courage as well as his vision.
His proposal to extend the school day and reduce the summer break to four weeks certainly is brave, but I wonder if he has thought this through. Leaving aside for a moment the question as to whether this proposal would improve academic outcomes for pupils - disadvantaged or otherwise - he would be faced with the invidious choice of trying to get teachers to work at least 250 additional hours per year for no additional pay, or coming up with £5 billion pounds. That's what it would take just to pay for the additional contact time - never mind the extra lesson-planning and box-ticking. The Coalition is already faced with some pretty stiff bills for the new schools we need to build as a result of immigration levels under the Blair government.
If extending school hours actually rescued our least able pupils from a life on the dole, it could be argued that £5 billion would be a small price to pay - mere chicken-feed compared to the amount of money conjured out of nowhere by QE. Gove cites schools in East Asia which have longer hours and superior results. Singapore and Hong Kong have excellent schools with extremely high standards - indeed; their expectations are positively brutal by comparison to ours. I was once consulted by Chinese parents from Hong Kong whose mildly-dyslexic 9-year-old daughter was falling behind, and they were terrified that they might have to send her to a 'British' school run by teachers trained in the UK. As they said, once children enter one of these 'child-friendly' schools in Hong Kong, there is no hope of re-joining a mainstream school anywhere in China.
However, what works in East Asia won't necessarily work here. As a matter of course, parents teach their children their tables and basic literacy skills. Teachers and parents still believe in their right to tell children what to do, and that includes staying in school and working hard. It is also worth noting that there are a lot of losers, like the above-cited girl from Hong Kong.
Let's take another example closer to home - Finland. Their schools regularly score at or near the top of international comparisons, and Gove has frequently cited them as a model. Their summer holiday? 2 ½-3 months. In other words, at least 6 weeks longer than what Gove is proposing. Even closer to home, our independent schools are among the world's best, and virtually all of them have at least a two-month break in the summer.
It defies belief that someone as intelligent and able as Michael Gove can think that kids who emerge from our schools illiterate, uncultured and unemployable will be any better off for spending even more time in them. To be fair, it is entirely possible that Gove is under pressure from No. 10, which is doing all it can to get mothers into the workforce and to look after the interests of professional women (teachers excepted). There are other problems - such as the impact on the holiday industry if the family market is restricted to four weeks - which clearly haven't been thought through.
Considering that Gove unquestionably believes in a free society, it is surprising that he should make a proposal with such sinister overtones. Do we really want our children institutionalised any more than they are already? In Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956,Anne Applebaum explains how Communists sought to mould the new Soviet Man (and Woman) with after-school activities run by the state. They knew that the best way to crush independent thought - or competing ideologies - was by monopolising children's time. It also helped weaken the family, which leftists everywhere regard as a subversive institution. If the people of Eastern Europe were saved, it was only because of the appalling inefficiency and internal squabbling of their Communist masters. The ideology promoted in our schools may be more humane than the Soviet nightmare, but it is no less intolerant of dissent.
My instinctive aversion to Gove's proposal stems from my school days in Michigan, where 3-month summer holidays were considered a God-given right. Admittedly, this was in the days of free-range kids. Grown-ups taught us right from wrong in no uncertain terms - hence, we were assumed to be capable of looking after ourselves and each other from a very early age. We lived for our summers - we were free, and we learned to think of freedom as our default condition.
And come September when we went back to school, we took up where we left off at the end of May. Teachers in those days actually taught, and they had this quaint idea that 'critical thinking skills' could not operate in the absence of a deep reservoir of knowledge. The curriculum was structured so that new learning built upon the old, and reinforced the old. It was understood that rote learning was nothing more than learning something so that it could be reliably recalled at a later date.
No one doubts that Gove is intent on recapturing some of these old virtues, but with the best luck in the world it will take at least a generation before his counter-revolution works its way through the system. In the meantime, it would be sheer folly to add more hours to the school day. After all, compulsory school attendance has been the only form of involuntary servitude in the UK since National Service was abolished half a century ago.
*John Patten was education secretary from 1992 to 1994. It was the last office he held.