Commentary: Would a four-day school week work in Singapore?
Amid the growing calls for a four-day work week, would such an arrangement work for schools as well? NIE’s Jason Tan examines what a four-day school week might look like in Singapore, and if it is feasible.
SINGAPORE: One of the key and wide-ranging effects of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the shift to work-from-home arrangements, which in turn has triggered a worldwide debate over the desirability of more flexible work arrangements.
According to a Milieu Insight survey of 1,000 workers in September, 81 per cent said they want a four-day work week, with the majority (78 per cent) citing greater work-life balance as a key benefit.
Last month in Parliament, Minister of State for Manpower Gan Siow Huang urged employers and workers to adopt a “flexible mindset” on four-day work week arrangements.
She pointed out that pilot schemes in other countries had produced mixed results, while recognising that a reduction in the work week might not work equally well across various economic sectors.
Amid the growing calls for a four-day work week, would such an arrangement work for the education sector? Teachers have faced exceptional demands and increased responsibilities since the COVID-19 pandemic, with their workload doubling in some cases.
ARE 4-DAY SCHOOL WEEKS FEASIBLE FOR SINGAPORE?
Perhaps not many will remember this, but Singapore used to have six-day school weeks in the early 1960s. In September 1962, however, this was changed to a five-day school week, with extra-curricular activities on Saturday mornings instead, to ease the load on teachers.
As Singapore progresses, do students and teachers still need five days of lessons and other school activities each week?
During the pandemic, schools turned to full home-based learning (HBL) and consequently are now much better placed to implement blended learning, or a mix of face-to-face instruction in schools and online learning.
The Ministry of Education began introducing fortnightly HBL days in secondary schools and junior colleges a year ago, with each day comprising HBL activities for curriculum coverage that are designed for completion at home, as well as student-initiated learning.
At Raffles Institution, the school week is even shorter for junior college students. Year 5 and Year 6 students have enjoyed so-called gap days each Wednesday since the beginning of 2021. Instead of the usual classroom lessons, they may avail themselves of various options, such as co-curricular activities, consultations with their teachers, volunteering or even catching up on personal rest time.
In light of the ongoing public concern over the mental well-being of both teachers and students, might it be possible to extend such a four-day school week across the entire school system?
Have other education systems tried a four-day school week? What lessons might Singapore draw from these experiences?
HOW DO OTHER COUNTRIES IMPLEMENT 4-DAY SCHOOL WEEKS?
The first reported four-day school week in the United States was in the Madison Central School District in the state of South Dakota in 1931. In the 1970s, several mostly rural school districts implemented a four-day school week. More than 1,600 school districts nationwide have adopted this model as of the 2019-2020 school year.
In addition to extending the length of the four school days by about an hour, most schools used the fifth school day for teachers’ professional development. High schoolers commonly used the fifth day for internships, community service or work, with some school districts providing in-school tutoring, enrichment activities or online lessons.
A major motivation for moving to a four-day school week has been the savings in transportation and utilities costs. These savings vary depending on whether the school stays open on the fifth day for extra-curricular activities, staff professional development or tutoring.
Some school districts have found improvements in attendance rates, reduced student discipline problems and increased student participation in extra-curricular activities.
But there has also been concern reported over the practical difficulties facing working parents who need to arrange for child care, along with financially needy students who require free school meals.
The research indicates that the effects of a four-day school week on student academic performance appear mixed.
Earlier this year, a public petition calling for schools in England to make Friday a day off garnered more than 148,000 signatures. The petition cited the need to allow children a longer weekend to reduce school-related stress.
In its parliamentary reply, the Department for Education stated that it had no intention of doing so, as pupils would then lose 38 school days on average in each academic year.
THE CASE FOR AND AGAINST 4-DAY SCHOOL WEEKS
In the case of Singapore, it is unlikely that energy savings or transportation costs will be a main driver for any move in the direction of a four-day school week. Rather, concern over teachers’ and students’ mental well-being would more likely be a rallying point for proponents of such a school week.
The Raffles Institution principal stated that his primary motivation for reworking the school schedule was to make his students’ educational experience more enjoyable and less stressful. Student surveys revealed the main benefits as being greater control over their time, along with more time to rest, catch up with their studies or pursue their own interests.
A primary concern of many parents would quite naturally be the effect of such a move on their children’s academic performance.
The Raffles Institution principal claimed that his students’ A-Level results in 2021 improved over those in 2020. However, he acknowledged that most of his students were “highly motivated”.
Could students across a wide spectrum of motivational and achievement levels benefit similarly from a redesign of the school week in terms of enhanced academic performance, together with improved mental well-being?
WILL 4-DAY SCHOOL WEEKS RESULT IN EXTRA HBL DAYS, LONGER HOURS?
If implemented, would a four-day school week mean one day of HBL each week for all students, or a complete day off?
As things stand, the majority of secondary schools and junior colleges have one HBL day each fortnight. Parental fears about the effect of a shorter school week are real, especially in the case of younger students, who might not be adept at monitoring their own learning during HBL.
The COVID-19 pandemic led to some parents flocking to private tutoring as a means of ensuring that their children’s academic learning would not be adversely affected by HBL. The last thing many harried working parents want is to have to supervise home-based learning on a regular weekly basis.
Such fears might be allayed by assurances that the total amount of instructional time will remain unchanged through the lengthening of the remaining four school days.
However, a lengthening of the school day would mean the adjustment of lunch schedules. Childcare arrangements would also be affected, especially on the fifth day of the week.
Another concern related to shortening the school week might be that not every student has a conducive study environment at home.
Furthermore, there are benefits associated with a five-day school week for students who need free school meals and for those who need a brief respite from troubled home environments. This is probably why the Ministry of Education has asked secondary schools and junior colleges to make provision for students who may struggle with HBL to return to school during HBL days.
The benefits of face-to-face teaching and learning have been made plain by the numerous COVID-19 disruptions. Would a four-day school week mean reduced interaction time, not only between teachers and students, but also among students?
It is of course highly likely that the fifth day of the week would not be left entirely free of school-related activities. Were Singapore to move towards a four-day school week, there would be a number of options to consider for the fifth day. These include dedicated time for staff development, HBL, co-curricular activities, in-school tutoring for students, and even out-of-school learning activities such as community service or educational trips.
CHANGES MUST LEAD TO BETTER WELL-BEING FOR STUDENTS, TEACHERS
Ultimately, any changes to the current system must improve the current situation for teachers and students.
We must consider if the shortening of the school week would result in any substantial reduction in the total amount of academic and non-academic activities for students, or for that matter, teachers’ work.
If a four-day school week fails to adequately address the factors negatively affecting students’ and teachers’ mental well-being, mere tinkering with the length of the school week would then not make much sense at all.
Five-day school weeks have been the norm for as long as many can remember, but is this the best way going forward, or might a four-day school week be a better option instead, especially with the emergence of blended learning? How would a reduced school week tie in with wider efforts to consider a four-day work week?
As Singapore mulls over the need for more flexible work schedules, the question of a four-day school week is one that bears further consideration.
Jason Tan is an Associate Professor at the National Institute of Education.