As another Nova Scotia summer wanes and those pesky back-to-school ads become more mall crawling reality than TV fantasy, teachers, students and parents around the province and, indeed, around the continent are preparing for another year of school. They are doing so pretty much as they have for the past, oh, hundred years or so. Yes, e-gadgets have replaced slate tablets and point and click has replaced the Sears catalogue, but, essentially, September will yet again find millions of students finding a seat in a classroom of some sort. And as much as I trumpet the idea that education is always changing and that we are always moving forward, this annual migration back into September shows me why so many are convinced that we have really not come that far since the days of yore.
Indeed, on the surface at least, not a great deal has changed in schools over the past few generations. Schools remain, if one takes the simplistic business model view, very factory-esque; factories that continue, year after year, to churn out product. They are set up essentially the same way they have always been; large, industrial complexes containing individual rooms dedicated to individual teachers and groups of students for the meeting of a prescribed curriculum.
Now, those of us within the system know better, as do many parents, students and education partners. Schools are obviously much more than the brick and mortar that separates the first floor from the second, and students are human beings, not raw materials. As well, change within the realm of education often comes with such rapidity that educators can find themselves wishing for a day or two to adjust to one new initiative before facing another. But when it comes to change that can be perceived, change that the public can look at and say “Our schools are really up to something different!” the list is fairly short. We start in September, end in June, begin at 9am and finish at 3pm, children walk in and children walk out. And although we continue to work hard to improve the journey from primary to grade 12 and beyond, the basic pattern of what it means to “school” children has, with slight variances, remained the same.
These were the thoughts that were churning through my head this summer as I was driving through highway traffic between Halifax and Cape Breton when I heard a story on the radio that caught my ear. Apparently, Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim had set many a business tongue a wagging when he proposed, speaking at a business conference in Paraguay, that we are approaching the idea of work all wrong. He essentially argued that instead of working the common 40 hour week over 5 days, we should perhaps be looking at working those 40 hours over 4 days.
“Now, there’s a thought,” I thought. “What would schools look like if they ran over 4 days instead of 5?”
It turns out that this idea of the compressed work week is somewhat of a trend in the private sector, and apparently has quite a few benefits, both for the employee and the employer. In fact, the Canadian Government itself claims that flexible work arrangements like compressed work weeks and flexible hours can result in happier employees who have a greater ability to handle stress and who are more creative. Within the education world, France currently operates on a four-day school week. Schools there are closed on Wednesdays, and although they previously have had school on Saturday mornings, they stopped that practice in 2007. In the U.S., it has been reported that somewhere around 300 districts now operate on a four-day week. Even here in Canada, Fort McMurray, Alberta toyed briefly with the idea as recently as 2013, inspired, apparently, by that jurisdiction’s Catholic School Board four day school week.
Supporters of the four-day school week make several good points while touting the idea. For one thing, it could represent a significant financial gain for school boards, who would see, presumably, a savings in such things as busing, maintenance, and, to some extent at least, utility costs. As well, students could actually receive a bit more instructional time over the course of the school year. If, for example, schools opened Monday to Thursday, then holidays that fall on Friday would have no impact on overall instructional time. Even if schools chose to close mid-week, then appointments for children such as dentist’s and doctor’s could be made without keeping children out of school.
The devil of any public system, of course, is the ripple effect that any significant change begins. Yes, school boards would save money, but fewer buses means fewer bus drivers. The same can be said for everyone from cross walk guards to cafeteria staff to after school programs. Saving money in the public sector inevitably means fewer jobs. As well, there is the question of childcare. Like it or not, schools continue to serve a greater public good in that we look after everyone’s children for six to eight hours a day. Arranging and paying for an extra day of childcare might simply be too much for some families.
Furthermore, although adding an extra class to my day as a high school teacher may not seem overly extreme, spending an extra hour and fifteen minutes a day with one particular grade seven class I remember may have ultimately seen a premature end to my career. Finally, and most importantly, there is the impact on the students themselves. Would their education be better served with longer days and fewer of them, or would the extra day off have a negative impact on learning?
Like so much in education today, one can easily find as many arguments for the idea as against, but as we await the findings of the Minister’s Panel on Education, it seems like a “big idea” time in education. Of course, educational change of significant measure needs careful consideration and going to a four-day school week would certainly qualify as change of significant measure. We also must be careful what we wish for in this time of back to school ads and crowded malls. As much as school systems are maligned for being static, there is a certain comfort in routine, and, from the outside at least, the routine has remained, for the most part unchanged for a long, long time.
I am not completely sold on the idea of the four-day school week. For me, at the moment, it remains not much more than an interesting idea. But as I approached the Canso Causeway in the mid July heat, I found myself wondering about the potential impact of such a significant move, and perhaps more interestingly, how such a suggestion would be received by Nova Scotians. Could we, as a Province, even remotely consider such a shift?
I don’t believe that the four-day school week will ever come to our shores, but the conversation is intriguing, if nothing else. And, for many, perhaps, those back to school ads may not be quite as pesky as one would assume. Perhaps, for some, there is solace in the crowded malls of the last week of August. But this year, when the inevitable calls come for educational change, we Nova Scotians may well ask ourselves a fairly straight forward question:
How far, as a Province, would we actually be willing to go?
September, here we come.
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