AITSL The Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership

Do We Spend Too Much Time at School?

Do We Spend Too Much Time at School?  - Margery Evans, Chief Executive Officer of AITSL, 18 August 2014.

I recently participated in Dry July with my colleagues from AITSL, so bear with me on this one. All that clean living and giving things up might just have affected my judgement.

Actually, I’ve been thinking about whether we should give up on schooling. Before the outrage starts, allow me to explain.

Recent data published by the OECD raises the question of how much time spent in school is enough. There is an expectation that, during the compulsory years of schooling, children will actually spend their days in school. On the surface, this is unremarkable and, since the inception of mass education, it has become a social norm. How many of us could imagine life without school-aged children being, well, in school?

Dig a bit deeper, though, and the data point to an intriguing bunch of variations. Across OECD countries, the average amount of time it is intended that children spend in school across their primary and secondary education is 7,751 hours. The country with the lowest total required time in school is in Hungary at 6,054 hours. The country with the highest total time in school is Australia, with 10,710 hours of required class time. That’s a big difference!

It might be assumed that achievement would be higher in countries where children spend more time in school compared with countries where children spend less time in school. Analysis of 2012 PISA data indicates that this is not necessarily the case. For example, the 10 countries where children spend the greatest amount of time in school have a mean PISA score for mathematics that is 20 points below that of the 10 countries with the lowest amount of instruction time.

Put simply, more time in class does not always lead to improved learning outcomes for students in core subjects. 

In the 1970s, the Austrian philosopher, Ivan Illich, made a case for ‘deschooling’ society. Illich argued that achieving the goals of universal education through schooling is not feasible. Part of his thesis was that expanding the responsibility of schooling until, in his words, it ‘engulfs’ students’ lifetimes, would not achieve the goals of mass education. Illich’s remedy was a form of learning where students are provided with the opportunity to ‘transform each moment of his living into one of learning, sharing, and caring’.

Could Illich have been right? Have we been heading in the wrong direction all these years and are the data now showing us the error of our ways? There is something seductive in this argument, but I don’t think it’s time to give up on schooling just yet. 

Over 40 years on, there is lots of evidence that some schools are becoming more like the hotbeds of lifelong learning that Illich envisioned. So, yes I do think it’s time we gave up outmoded, outdated forms of schooling and instead direct our efforts more purposefully to ensuring schools provide every child with a challenging and personally relevant education that supports ever more learning.

For me, the OECD analysis of time spent in classrooms indicates an ongoing need to focus on improving and even transforming our education systems and schools - not abandoning them. The OECD report itself concluded, ‘The amount of time spent in school is much less important than how the available time is spent and on which subject, what methods of teaching and learning are used, how strong the curriculum is, and how good the teachers are’.

Interestingly, the OECD’s analysis also indicates that our capacity to measure the full range of the results achieved in schools and by students is, as yet, incomplete. 

No one would argue that the core knowledge and skills of literacy, numeracy and science aren’t important components of school education but they are not the entirety of what we aspire to for our children. The Melbourne Declaration emphasises that students should become confident and creative individuals and active and informed citizens as well as successful learners.

Part of the reason that Australia and other countries require a higher number of hours in school is to enable teachers and communities to focus on broad learning goals. The outcomes of such learning can be less amenable to objective measurement than areas like English, maths and science, but this doesn’t mean qualities of character, creativity and communication are of lesser value.

In seeking to transform the Australian education system, I believe we should continue to place emphasis on schools playing a very important part in providing a well-rounded education that meets the diverse needs of all students.

I think this a goal worth continuing to pursue. I will be interested to hear what others think.

Credits -

Photo courtesy of Winnond from Free Digital Photos


Submitted by Tim Priest (not verified) on

So I don't drink, does that mean my judgement is affected on a daily basis. What a ridiculous statement from a person of influence.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on

Lighten up, Tim. Clearly it was a jovial beginning to what is a rather serious issue.
Maybe you could've spent the 'extra time' back when you were at school on developing a sense of humour.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on

Agreed. Well put, jumping right in and saying 'no more education' would not of won over people's views, adding the slight humour gave it a less serious tone

Submitted by John G (not verified) on

What you've highlighted is the need for flexible learning rather than traditional schooling, and whereby learning occurs anytime, anywhere and with anyone. We talk about lifeling learning but in reality, try and cram so much knowledge in 13years.

Submitted by Pam Ronan (not verified) on

What an interesting provocation! It is so interesting to measure class time as time spent on academic learning. PISA and TIMMS and such tests do not measure the social/emotional and spiritual aspects of learning and wellbeing that demand significant amounts of time and energy by teachers and school leaders. Cyber safety, productive behaviours, maintaining respectful relationships etc are also vital components of school based learning in countries such as Australia. In some countries, these are the responsibility of families.
The AC. Capabilities if they are tested by international benchmarking assessments may throw up some interesting insights....

Submitted by Bondjovi (not verified) on

I would like to know that the statistics being compared (of hours spent in school) are equal. I am concerned that Austrlia is 10 hrs because I'm sure the students I teach do not spend 10 hours a day at school or studying? Where has this data come from?

Submitted by Natalie Milliken (not verified) on

Surely sobriety should be the norm, and philosophical thought part of our professional cache.

Submitted by Gregg (not verified) on

For many students school is their safe haven and the only opportunity they have to develop the necessary skills that are required to be socially and economically mobile. Despite the difficulties, many children need the rich and purposeful experiences and realtionships (with teachers) that school provides; especially for those where more time at home is not such a rich and purposeful experience. I am proud of the Australian figures!

Submitted by Meredith Wright (not verified) on

I fully endorse the conclusions of the OECD report, " The amount of time spent ......", as well as the statement on the incomplete nature of measuring data. It is these two conclusions that should drive our professional learning if we are to meet the outcomes from the Melbourne Declaration. I find too many variables at stake when comparing external testing results both within and across countries as illustrated in Amanda Ripley's The Smartest Kids in the World. I have been teaching for over thirty years and am inspired by those teachers who can achieve more in their classrooms than you would think time allowed! By the schools whose creative approach leads to stimulating physical environments, particularly in high schools. By those learning area coordinators who provide learning opportunities for their teaching staff to further both their academic and pedagogical knowledge and skills. By those dedicated teachers who passionately (and more often in their own time) try to find ways to write and deliver curriculum...oh and make sense to it! By schools whose own culture reflects those Melbourne Declaration aims! If only I was not surprised when I see these aspects of education in Australia, that this was the norm. So, yes, it is not the amount of time spent in schools but what is done with that amazing opportunity we have in Australia to nurture our citizens of the future.

Submitted by Christine Ash (not verified) on

If my students spent more time at home, they would not necessarily be involved in activities that broaden and stimulate learning. However, if we focused on educating children to broaden their interests and deepen their understanding skills and knowledge in those hours that we have them instead of wasting time allocating and marking homework and chasing up those who do not comply with homework to appease parents, I would be a much happier Principal.

Submitted by Sheila (not verified) on

I so agree but as a classroom teacher in a primary school the option is to deliver a creative curriculum to your students but at the same time tick all the boxes in regard to school demands such as blogs to parents for all subjects taught weekly,(seldom read by any parents) attend PLC meetings on vague topics weekly with no prior input from staff, meet with parents on demand, run school ministries voluntarily, complete system demands with little or no notice,keep meticulous records aligned to the Australian curriculum and all while attempting to consider the mental and emotional needs of thirty students.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on

Lighten up, Tim. Clearly it was a jovial beginning to what is a rather serious issue.
Maybe you could've spent the 'extra time' back when you were at school on developing a sense of humour.

Submitted by Tim Priest (not verified) on

Well Anonymous at least I have a sense of propriety and can put my name to comments made, self?

Submitted by Fleur (not verified) on

Great food for thought and yes Tim, lighten up. It was indeed a mischeivious introduction (meant with an emoticon wink perhaps) to a pretty thought provoking blog entry. I can put my name to my comment and indeed I have a sense of proprietry also ;-)

Submitted by Elizabeth Kramer (not verified) on

I guess having spent my formative years in Hungary attending school, rote learning, memorising with minimum pass of 65% and a minimum of a C overall course average otherwise stay in the same year level until you do pass....hmmmm.....However, I do agree it is not the hours that may be relevant but the quality of content being delivered/strategy used? Maybe, it is also a matter of how the courses are timetabled...maybe block learning has its merit as well for all?

Submitted by Sarah Collins (not verified) on

I'm currently reading 'Free to Learn' by Peter Gray. This book places learning in an evolutionay biology context and completely turns the nature of education as we typically know it, on its ear.It would seem Peter Gray and Ivan Illich would be in good company. Gray's book illustrates clearly the historical context of our current education system and how it intrinsically works against the way humans naturally learn through play.

I definitely agree with this statement 'For me, the OECD analysis of time spent in classrooms indicates an ongoing need to focus on improving and even transforming our education systems and schools - not abandoning them.' With an extremely strong emphasis on 'transforming our education system' to something more in line with natural human learning such as is proposed by Bea McGavey and Chuck Schwahn's 'Mass Customized Learning' because demanding more of an outdated and factory modeled system will I fear ultimatly prove fruitless and do nothing more than tweak the engine in a rusted out bomb. Until educators at all levels are prepared to look for and implement an alternative education systems we will continue to see schools churn out students that are lacking in creativity and critical thinking, high below average literacy and numeracy rates, and teacher burn out and attrition and all at unsustainible cost to the tax payer.

We as educators need to start looking seriously at this transformation now, because if we wait too long we will see parents screaming and protesting on behalf of their children, demanding change and as a parent myself I assure you I'll be one of them.

Submitted by Sheila OCallaghan (not verified) on

Hear Hear
Well said

Submitted by Meredith Wright (not verified) on

I would love it if more high school parents "screamed" well at least took greater critical interest. One of the stand out elements in student achievement is the value placed in education in the home. I was also interested in the stats in this ATSIL newsletter on critical thinking and problem solving. And yes, transforming has its place but like so many teachers I'd like some stability in curriculum!

Submitted by Julie Murray (P... (not verified) on

These pondering a about the relevance of class time and it's impact on learning seem to confirm thoughts I have had about the role of effective teachers in the learning of children and students. Effective teachers are those who are able to instil a love of or passion for learning in their charges. They are able to ignite that spark or thirst for learning and simultaneously, are able to instil the skills for life long learning. I know that that is a term which is cast about with almost monotonous regularity, however it aptly describes the means by which people learn. Without such a skill set, people are limited in their ability to grow intellectually, to learn new skills or to explore and develop their creativity.

Effective teachers need to be able to ignite the spark of awareness of or passion for the "human" skills too: those skills of compassion, empathy, collaboration and team work. The importance of the development of emotional intelligence fuelling the drive for academic and skills learning is critical, and dependant on effective, powerful teachers who are able to inspire and nurture their charges. It cannot occur outside of a dynamic, relevant school system which provides the platform for further learning anywhere, anytime.

Submitted by Annette Beaton (not verified) on

A very interesting article giving rise to good reflection which will also be a nice focus for professional discussion. Thank you!

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on

AS I suspected my last comment has been taken down. Hmm interesting.

I am a high school teacher of 14 years experience.

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about how despondent myself and many colleages of mine feel about the amount of extra work being forced on us by the need to develop "Active professional portfolios' and evidence all these standards.

We already have increased workloads with all the work expected of us and then on top of this we have to develop evidenced standards and mountains of paperwork to satisfy the governing bodies that we can actually do our job.

I am a pre-new scheme teacher(obviously not for much longer) and a colleage of mine is also. He told me a story of how he rang up someone at AITSL and asked about whether new scheme teachers are currently performing any better than us old timers. As far as we can see the new scheme teahers are great but i can't see any noticable performance improvements because of the their new scheme obligations.
None the less he was given a frosty response at the other end. Hmm... interesting...

A dear colleage of mine ( nearing retirement age) was in tears last week at a meeting about evidencing standards. She said to me , I can't cope with all this and don't know where to start? I keep seeing the words RETIREMENT flash before my eyes.

I have heard many conversations from other teachers nearing retirement and thinking about going early just to avoid mountains of accrediation. So I cant think of a more effective tool at getting rid ouf our most esperienced teachers then by making them do more accreditationso they can continue doing what they have always done!

Letws also turn of new teachers at the same time. And while we are at it keep teachers from developing great class resources becasue their snowed unders with paperwork.

I am astonished that this is'nt being brought to the surface. I read nothing on websites of in the media about this. I cannot be the only person thinking this way
I am yet to be convinced that 'evidencing the standrds' actually amkes us a better teacher. It makes us better beuraucrats!
I have heard this conversation from many teachers. Are they scare to speak out.

Do I expect this repsonse to not be here in a week?

Submitted by editor on

AITSL is interested in working with teachers and principals to enhance the prestige and capabilities of the profession. Accordingly, AITSL provides advice, resources and tools to help all educators have the maximum impact on student learning in all Australian schools. One of those key resources is the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers, which define the qualities, commitments and expectations that define the profession. The Teacher Standards provide an Australia-wide basis for recognising high-impact teaching. Importantly, the Standards clearly state the knowledge, practice and professional engagement required of teachers throughout their careers. In NSW, see

Submitted by A. Teacher (not verified) on

As a teacher who homeschooled my kids in their early years I would make the following points.

I would estimate up to half of all school time is wasted in the sense that it is simply teachers managing space, large numbers of children and movement in the class and school. A lot of other time is wasted by compulsory assessment and data collection which is irrelevant to many student's learning but which must be collected and recorded. Take away the large class sizes and students, regardless of ability go ahead at a faster rate. When I homeschooled my kids I would do a few hours of focussed learning about 4 days a week and much of the rest of the time was spent adventuring and outside. All the kids read early and did very well in maths with less than half the hours a child is given in school. Obviously not everyone can or wants to homeschool and after the early years we sent them to school for a wider social environment. However, the lessons I learnt about how much time is wasted in schools were very clear.

Until education authorities (and many teachers) realise that obsessive assessment and data collection often has very little to do with kids' learning and everything to do with political targets then little will change. Further more, until schools stop accommodating severe misbehaviour and disadvantaging the majority, time wasting through classroom management will continue to feature highly in the hours and weeks and years of life that children attend school.

Submitted by Laura Murphy (not verified) on

It seems strange to me that so much information points to the success of education systems with a wholeistic approach, yet many of our schools are still striving to produce the few academically exceptional students- indeed to the exclusion of the minority and majority.

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