So, what is “full-time”?

Most people would generally agree that the average school day has a 9am start with a 3pm finish (slightly amended either one or both sides for Secondary school). Accounting for the approximate 1 hour lunch break (to keep the maths simple), this basically ends up being 5 hours a day, or 25 hours per week. But is there actually a legal requirement or written definition? A recent parliamentary research paper, The School Day and Year (England), had some useful information.

It states, “In England, local authority maintained schools must open for at least 380 sessions (190 days) during a school year.” How long those days or sessions last though does not seem to be dictated in black and white, “The head teacher of a maintained school will recommend the length of a school day, including session times and breaks“, and “The governing body must agree the recommendation.” In fact, the GOV.UK website provides a document, School attendance, which merely states, “Every school day must have two sessions divided by a break in the middle of the day. The length of each session, break and the school day is determined by the school’s governing body.

Equally in Scotland, “The Schools General (Scotland) Regulations 1975, as amended, require schools under education authority management in Scotland to be open for 190 days per year.” It goes on to state, “They do not define, however, the length of the school week for pupils, which is a matter for the discretion of education authorities within their responsibility for the day-to-day organisation of schools“, and “There is, however, a widely accepted norm of 25 hours and 27.5 hours for primary schools and secondary schools, respectively.

Again, in Wales, the governing body will determine school times, noting that “where a local education authority considers that a change in any maintained school’s session times is necessary or expedient to promote the use of sustainable modes of travel or to improve the efficiency or effectiveness of its travel arrangements, it can determine the time the school’s first session begins and its second session ends (or if there is only one session, its start and end).

Whereas, “the Department of Education Northern Ireland circular 2013/09 makes clear that the structure of a school day should be attendance on any day under instruction (other than in religious education): • Three hours (minimum) in the case of a pupil enrolled in a class composed mainly of pupils who, at the beginning of the school year, had not reached the age of eight years. • Four and a half hours (minimum) in the case of any other pupil.

So, we do actually have some numbers, but not necessarily helpful ones. As you can see, the range is from the 3 hours (minimum) over 5 days, so 15 hours a week at the bottom end, up to the generally accepted “norm” of 25 hours a week at the other (or 22.5 to 27.5 for older children). That’s quite a substantial difference, so what else have we got to shed some light on this?

Another way to answer this could be to look at the rules around Child Benefit. Child Benefit stops on 31 August on or after your child’s 16th birthday unless they stay in approved full-time education. The GOV.UK website states:

“Education must be full-time (more than an average of 12 hours a week supervised study or course-related work experience) and can include:

  • A levels or similar, for example Pre-U, International Baccalaureate
  • Scottish Highers
  • NVQs and other vocational qualifications up to level 3
  • home education – if started before your child turned 16
  • traineeships in England” ( https://www.gov.uk/child-benefit-16-19 )

At best, this can only be used as an insight into hours for children over the age of 16 as it says nothing about the number of hours for children under that age, but all it actually does anyway is widen the range from 22.5 -27.5 to 12 – 27.5 hours per week. Not particularly helpful.

So, if we can’t find it from any official source, what else is there on the internet which might help? Well, one point to raise here is that what we’ve actually been talking about so far is not the number of hours of education being delivered but merely the number of hours a child is attending school. I’ve found a couple of blogs which all seem to suggest that ‘the number of hours constituting the full time equivalent of school’ is actually the wrong thing to focus on – merely being present in a particular building is not and nor should it be the main goal.

Becoming a favourite of mine, The Adventure Travel Family acknowledges the lack of definition: “In the UK, the law states that home educating parents must provide a “full time, age appropriate” education for their child, but it does not outline exactly what full time or age appropriate means exactly. If a council has to provide a tutor for a school child who is unable to attend school due to chronic illness, they provide a tutor for up to 6 hours a week as that is, according to local authorities, the amount of tuition that school children receive.” It goes on to say “Some homeschooling families set themselves “school hours”, which are usually much shorter (2 or 3 study hours) than school hours due to the much higher adult-child ratio.

Home Education UK also acknowledges the lack of clarity and makes a similar claim, stating “The term ‘full time’ has never been defined in law. Some LAs try to suggest that home educators should follow the same hours as schools. However, when providing education to sick children unable to attend school, they tend to provide only around 5 to 8 hours tuition a week and call this full time provision.” It goes on to say, “In fact the term ‘full time’ has been interpreted not so much in terms of hours but as meaning that parents must ensure that the child receives a full education sufficient to be deemed suitable to satisfy the rest of section 7 of the Education act“, explaining that “Therefore, in many respects the term ‘full time’ is not really very helpful either to LAs assessment of home educational provision or to parents trying to work out what they are obliged in law to provide. Suffice to say that so long as the parents are providing an education suitable to the child’s needs, that would be deemed to be sufficient to fulfil their obligations under the law.

They’re both suggesting that the important factor is the number of hours direct tuition, and claim that between 5 & 8 hours would be considered to be the equivalent of ‘full-time’ by a Local Authority. I wish I knew what their official sources were for this, but I have found a blog which breaks down the calculation in a way that logically makes sense. Monkey Mum, who has personal experience of teaching, discusses the amount of (formal) learning which actually takes place during the school day. She suggests that, after you’ve made deductions for scheduled breaks, administration, prep time at the start, tidying-up time at the end, the inevitable unscheduled breaks, pupil distractions and the time it takes to move around the building, you’re left with between 9 hours 25 mins and 12 hours 5 mins per week of quality learning, and this is without all the other events which happen in the year that detract from that further. At the most extreme end of the scale, she suggests that active learning can end up being for as little as 1 hour 40 mins per school day.

And that calculation gives us 8 hours and 20 mins per week, pretty much in line with amount of private tuition that The Adventure Travel Family and Home Education UK suggested was considered ‘full time’ by Local Authorities. It’s depressing, but it makes sense.

It’s seriously worth a read! Really, like, go read it, now… it’s alright, I’ll wait for you… https://monkeymum.blog/2015/09/13/time-is-precious/

See!

More importantly, Monkey Mum makes a really valuable point that this ‘number-of-hours-per-week’ thing is based on those who observe school holidays, or put another way, those who only focus on education for 38 weeks of the year. Referencing her calculation of the mere 100 minutes of active learning per school day, she says, “Considering that if you home educate, you are in your learning environment every one of the 365 days in the year, this equates to 51 minutes per day.” The blog, having the pertinent title of Time is Precious, states, “This is what schools class as full-time and efficient education, as set out by law”, highlighting “Just 51 minutes of learning per day, would achieve the same length of time spent learning, as a schooled child.

I know I’m supposed to be being objective, but if that’s all true then it genuinely breaks my heart that by sending them to school, we waste so much of our opportunity to spend time together as a family and worse still, so much of our children’s lives.

Having hunted high and low for something both informative and official on this whole ‘full-time’ question, I finally came across this: GOV.UK page on Elective Home Education. That’s a bit of a lie – I had already found it, but I first ready the Elective home education: guidance for parents. This was useful but not as useful as the Elective home education: guidance for local authorities (Apr 2019). Section 9 of the guidance for local authorities is “What do the s.7 requirements mean?” – needless to say, I shall be referring to this document a lot.

To start, it states “there is currently no legal definition of what constitutes ‘full-time’ education, either at school or in the home.” Yep, that matches what we’ve concluded so far. It goes on to highlight that school children “normally receive around 4.5-5.0 hours of education a day“. Hmmm, well, we’ve already seen arguments which call that claim into question in some ways. More usefully, it goes on to state: “The department’s registration guidance for independent schools sets 18 hours of operation a week as the baseline for registration of the school. However, in home education there is often continual one-to-one contact; education may take place outside normal ‘school hours’ and term time, and the type of educational activity can be varied and flexible.” This basically means that as a minimum requirement, schools have to “operate” for 3 hours and 36 mins per day for 5 days a week, but that’s operate, not necessarily be actively teaching for the entire time. It also implicitly acknowledges that home school hours may be less than those 3.6 hours per day by virtue of being leaned out across more days, learning being inclusive of a wider range of activities than commonly seen in a classroom (e.g. desk based activities), and the quality of the learning experience being richer due to the “continual one-to-one contact“. I highlight again though that this is the implicit message resulting from the use of ‘however‘ at the start of the sentence – it never actually makes the acknowledgement explicitly.

It does continue to add that “the overall time devoted to home education of a child” should be done “on the basis of the number of hours per week, and weeks per year” to enable an assessment of whether it meets Section 7, and concludes by highlighting that “the issue as to whether education is ‘full-time’ should be viewed on a spectrum but education which manifestly is not occupying a significant proportion of a child’s life (making due allowance for holiday periods) will probably not meet the s.7 requirement.

So, as helpful as all that is, it still doesn’t give us any definitive guidance because we’re now just down to a debate about the meaning of “significant proportion“. That said, I think I’ve explored the grey area enough to get a sufficient feel for where the ‘full-time’ boundary is, at least enough for me to be able to defend my case if ever challenged. I’m starting to suspect a lot of this homeschooling stuff can only ever be answered to the extent that you feel okay about it within yourself, making that judgement call for your own child. For me though, on this matter at least, that does it.

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