A new kind of ciúnas in schools
A switch to longer, 60 minute, classes is slowly catching on across the second-level system, writes Katherine Donnelly
There's a kind of hush descending on a lot of second-level schools this year.
Slowly, but, it seems, steadily, the post-primary system is moving from building timetables around class slots of 35 to 40 minutes, to lengthier, hour-long, periods.
It means instead of the typical student timetable of nine to 10 classes a day, it is down to six.
The 840-pupil co-educational Coláiste Bhríde, Carnew, Co Wicklow did a trial run last year and it was so well received by staff, students and parents, that it has made the permanent change to 60-minute classes.
If, like Carnew, a typical school involved marshalling hundreds of teenagers up and down corridors to a different classroom every 35-40 minutes, the switch brings a certain calm to daily school life.
"It's all less frenetic," says principal Linda Dunne.
Traditionally, post-primary classes were timetabled at 35 or 40 minutes, although the logistics of changeovers could slice off five minutes, reducing a 35 minute slot to 30 minutes. Schools' inspectors often reported their disapproval at finding 30 minute classes actually timetabled.
The imperative for extending the time allocation springs from the junior cycle reforms and the new, and more interactive, approaches to teaching and learning.
The Department of Education told schools that, from this September, in order to facilitate reforms that involve a new balance between the development of skills and competences and the development of students' knowledge, all classes must be timetabled for a minimum 40 minutes. A 40-minute class is deemed too short for effective teaching of what is involved.
The Department circular also suggests that schools may find the use of even longer class periods - 60 minutes - better again.
Even before the roll-out of the junior cycle, the arrival of iPads in Coláiste Bhríde, about six years ago, brought home to Linda Dunne the logic of having longer classes.
Teachers attended a variety of professional development courses to upskill in the more active learning methodologies associated with use of iPads and they found that the biggest and most common constraint to active learning in the classroom had been lack of time. "The students were learning by experiencing and collaborating; they needed more time," she says.
Their research into the experience in schools that had already taken the step, provided lots of positive feedback including students being more focussed in class, students being less stressed because they only had six class periods rather than nine or 10 (which also means homework in a maximum of six subjects) less disruption, less time lost and, overall, a less rushed atmosphere.
"We said we wouldn't sit back," Dunne says. Still, it represented a big change for all concerned and, in spring 2016, it was put to a vote of teachers, following which it was decided to try it for a year.
The school wrote to parents explaining that teachers found that they were not accomplishing as much per class as they wanted and that an hour would give them "the freedom to achieve plenty of learning in a class".
Towards the end of the trial, students, teachers and parents were surveyed, with 90pc of students, 88pc of teachers and 95pc of parents, giving the thumbs up to continuing with longer classes.
"It used to be very frenetic around the school. Now we have two classes before break, two before lunch and two after lunch."
Because classes are longer, there are fewer of them and teachers of non-core subjects might see a set of pupils three times a week, instead of four. Dunne says, in the beginning, they were "concerned whether they would get the curriculum covered and we were saying to teachers, 'you really need to watch that'".
Their fears proved unfounded and, in fact, they saw an advantage in teachers not "working against the clock of 35 to 40 minutes".
However, the change is not without its challenges, such as what to do with practical subjects, like home economics, where, traditionally. there was a double class period, giving a total of 80 minutes.
If the brown bread isn't made and cooked within 60 minutes, what does a teacher and the students do? The Coláiste Bhríde principal says teachers have shown great flexibility and " if, for instance, they have to go 10 minutes into their lunch break, they are prepared to do it. There doesn't seem to be any issues there".