Continuous or split school day: arguments in the debate

When considering which type of timetable is best, one question is: best for what and for whom? Not only does the scientific evidence on student learning and well-being come into play, but also the employment interests of teachers, the reconciliation needs of families, and the effects of each type of timetable on socio-economic inequality and the gender gap in care are also involved. We bring together more elements of the discussion in this second article.

18/09/2023 - 09:01 CEST

Boys and girls leaving school. / Adobe Stock.

How is the type of working day chosen?

For a school to change the type of school day, it has to be approved by a majority of both the teaching staff and the families. The percentages required, both in terms of participation and votes in favour, vary from one community to another. But "they always arise at the initiative of the cloister, and always to move to an intensive day", explains Marta Ferrero, professor and vice-dean of research and transfer at the Faculty of Teacher Training and Education of the Autonomous University of Madrid, who has been a teacher and guidance counsellor before, for whom criticisable practices sometimes take place and in which biased and incomplete information is shared. Furthermore, according to the professor and researcher, "it is unacceptable that the authorities are standing on the sidelines, because they are taking non-evaluated decisions which, in practice, are irrevocable". This is also the opinion of Daniel Gabaldón, educational sociologist and professor of Sociology of Education at the University of Valencia, who believes that "a moratorium should be established and the reports and evaluations that the regional ministries promised to carry out should be demanded". "The studies we have indicate that the continuous school day may be damaging children's health and learning. If this is confirmed by more data, we should reverse it. However, the institutions are washing their hands of it," she says.

What are the reasons given by those in favour of intensive working hours?

"The origin of the intensive working day in Spain took place in the 1980s in the Canary Islands, but it was not born with a pedagogical character, but with a union character [on the part of the teaching staff]", recalls Ferrero. As stated in a report published by ESADE in 2022 (and in other previous studies), the majority of teachers are in favour of the continuous working day, but in their responses they discard the idea of it being based on self-interest. Among those who already work this type of working day, only 3% of respondents cited the advantages for the teaching staff themselves as the main reason, while more than 90% said that the main reason was the benefits for academic performance and student well-being, as well as for the work-life balance of families.  

According to the report, in which Ferrero herself participated, "these results show that, among teachers, a narrative in favour of the morning school day and its benefits for pupils and families has been installed that is not supported by the data. On the contrary, the morning school day does not contribute to improving students' academic performance and well-being. Nor does it help families to reconcile work and family life, as it entails huge economic and social costs.

"In no way do I think they are lying," defends Ferrero. "I have no doubt that they want the best for students, but the big gap between research and educational practice means that teachers tend to rely on more informal literature or on their own or other colleagues' experiences to make decisions. In the case of the school day, the problem is that their experience is hopelessly biased, as they are an involved party. Scientific studies go in a different direction. This is also Gabaldón's opinion: "The continuous school day favours teachers' work-life balance. They don't lie, but the evidence is not well known and they convince themselves in their favour with arguments that are not true. For example, they allude to pupils' tiredness at 3 p.m. after lunch, which does exist, but it is a tiredness that is recovered during the afternoon and which is less than at the end of the morning during the continuous working day," he explains to SMC España. 

Some of the specific reasons given by both teachers and some families in favour of the continuous working day are that it allows more time to study and organise oneself in the afternoons, improves rest and increases family time, improving work-life balance.

Does the continuous working day really increase rest and family time?

However, the Spanish Confederation of Parents' Associations (CEAPA) has denounced the fact that with the intensive school day, homework increases because there is not enough school time to complete the curriculum, and that the help that families can provide may be very different depending on their situation and their economic and cultural capital, which generates and aggravates inequalities. Moreover, when it has been analysed, it has been detected that children do not go to bed earlier with the continuous school day. In fact, they are more tired and sleepier than with the split-day option, "probably because it causes a mismatch and a delay in circadian rhythms," explains Gabaldón.  

In terms of family time, a study carried out in Catalonia found that most parents of teenage children arrived home in the evening: 45.2 % of mothers and 72.1 % of fathers arrived home after 6 p.m. Before 2.30 p.m., only 12.5 % of mothers and 3.7 % of fathers did so. Before 14:30, only 12.5 % of mothers and 3.7 % of fathers did so. For sociology professor Mariano Fernández Enguita, "an improvement in family life occurs if, and only if, the preconditions exist. That is, if there is a family waiting". According to Gabaldón at a meeting with journalists organised by SMC Spain, a study that his group has yet to publish shows that "with the continuous working day, only two minutes of quality family time is gained on average per day. And in secondary schools, no effect is observed. On the other hand, there is an increase in the time students spend watching television".

How does each day impact on inequality?

The intensive working day implies a greater demand for paid professional care, which also generates inequalities in terms of income. Moreover, within families, gender roles continue to place the majority of care responsibilities on women. The continuous working day makes it difficult for working hours to exceed 25 or 28 hours a week, and the reduction falls mainly on women. According to the ESADE report, 66.4% of the annual loss of household purchasing power is borne by mothers, and the impact is greater for women in low-income households. The conclusion is that "a longer school day favours the reduction of income inequality between households with different levels of education and also gender inequality within households".

What does the OECD say?

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has published this year the report Proposals for an action plan to reduce early school leaving in Spain. Among other actions, it advocates extending the length of the school day. "Spain could consider following the example of OECD countries such as Denmark and Portugal, which have adopted flexible full-day systems to extend learning time," the document states. "These initiatives have been accompanied by increased provision of school meals and after-school activities. Spain could consider adopting a similar approach because of the benefits it could bring, particularly for disadvantaged pupils (...) Spending more time in school has been shown to raise graduation rates and improve learning and other social and behavioural indicators.

Some proponents of the intensive school day propose that an affordable and voluntary canteen and after-school service be offered, which would equalise the time in school with the split school day and leave freedom of choice. Is there evidence that it works?

This was the initial approach, according to the ESADE report. However, it has not worked in practice. As stated above, although 72.5 % of public primary schools have a school canteen, only 38.6 % of pupils are users. Furthermore, Save the Children points out that school canteen grants are insufficient in terms of coverage and quantity. These data, as stated in their report, "are consistent with the fact that most of the pupils in the split school day are canteen users, and most of the pupils in the continuous school day are not". A report from the Valencian Community noted that canteen use fell by more than 30 % in schools the year after the implementation of the continuous school day. 

As for extracurricular activities, participation in schools with a split school day is around or above 50 %, while it is below 30 % in those with an intensive school day. According to Ferrero, this lower participation means that "there is also a smaller offer and at less competitive prices". According to the Valencian Community report, "families find more alternative possibilities to staying at school after school hours, thus taking advantage of activities that provide added value", which increases inequality due to the different resources of each family.

Should it be a split or continuous working day for all?

In general, the split school day seems to be the most convenient, but there are situations where it could be made more flexible and adapted to the specific characteristics of each environment or community. As stated in the Bofill Foundation's report, a particular case may be dispersed rural areas, where the split day may cause children to arrive home too late. Or very homogeneous communities, if any, where parents have morning working hours, sufficient resources and an accessible socio-educational network.

What do the ESADE report's proposals consist of?

The report considers that "the advance of the morning shift is taking place while the available evidence on its pernicious effects on pupils and families is denied". For this reason, it advocates "[considering pupils as the central objective of education policy] articulating other alternatives to the continuous school day that make it feasible to compensate teachers for the sharp deterioration in their work situation over the last decade (first with the crises and then with the pandemic)". According to Ferrero, "teachers are key but have very little social recognition". 

The report calculates that the intensive working day in infant and primary education represents a loss of 8,048 million euros in income for families each year. The generalisation of the full-time working day would mean an increase in income tax revenue of around 1.2 billion euros, which, according to the authors of the report, could be used to "guarantee and make this type of working day politically viable". To this end, three fundamental items of public investment would be established:

  • Extend the coverage and amount of canteen grants to reach 40% of all pupils. 
  • Develop and improve school infrastructures in public nursery and primary schools to make a canteen in each school possible in the medium and long term. 
  • Compensate teachers with a salary supplement to increase the number of hours they spend in schools.
Read the first article of this two-part series to learn about the data, studies and evidence on the effects of each type of day on student achievement and well-being. This series of articles follows a media briefing organised by SMC Spain at the beginning of the school year on this topic.
The 5Ws +1
Publish it