Exclusive: Schools to be told to introduce daily “free learning” hour

Ministers insist child-centred plan is no U-turn and will help England climb the global rankings

All schools are to be told to give pupils a daily hour of unstructured, child-centred “free learning” from September, TES can reveal.

Plans from the government would see pupils encouraged to decide what they want to learn about during the hour. The teachers’ role will be to act as their “guides on the side”.

Reliable sources say that ministers believe more must be done to unleash “the innate creativity and thirst for knowledge that resides in every student”. Their advisers have noted that top ranked Asian school systems like those in Shanghai and Singapore have been adapting their approaches to foster more independent thinking among young people.

It is understood that the Department for Education wants to ensure that schools in England keep up with the best in the world, with the daily hour of pupil-led “free learning” complementing the academic “rigour” introduced elsewhere in the curriculum.

Lessons structured in this way will not amount to a U-turn or move away from the traditional approach to teaching promoted by the government, but will build on it, sources insist.

“Firstly, let’s be clear: our reforms have already led to schools reintroducing the subject knowledge, rigour and literacy and numeracy skills that are the intellectual birthright of all children in this country,” a source said. “But if we are to compete with the top performers in the global race, we must go further still. We must ensure that pupils are equipped with the 21st-century skills that they need in today’s knowledge-based economy.”

‘Like it or lump it’

Observance of the daily hour of unstructured “free learning” in schools will be monitored under ministers’ new doctrine of “supported autonomy” for the all-academies system that they are developing.

Outlining the plan, the source explained that schools will have the freedom to decide whether or not they introduce the hour. But if they choose not to they are likely to be failed by Ofsted and face intervention from a regional schools commissioner.

Last year, education secretary Nicky Morgan pledged that the nation would be “one of the top five performing countries worldwide – and the best in Europe – for English and maths” by 2020. While Ms Morgan and her ministers are reluctant to abandon their emphasis on a knowledge-based curriculum, they are also concerned about England’s current position in global education rankings.

It is understood that ministers have been inspired to rebalance the curriculum by the independent Summerhill School. They have taken to describing the radical Suffolk-based experiment in “democratic schooling” as “the original free school”.

News of their plan comes in the wake of recent criticism from Andreas Schleicher, who oversees the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) global education rankings. Last month, he said that UK schoolchildren experienced “superficial” maths lessons delivered across a curriculum that is “a mile wide and an inch deep” and relied too much on memorisation (see page 11).

The DfE’s new drive for child-centred learning is being seen as an extension of the push for character education that Ms Morgan has championed. Statutory guidance for the “free-learning” hour will set out the requirement that it should include 10 minutes of phonics drilling, another 20 minutes reading the great works of the English literary canon and 10 minutes reciting the 13 times table.

A DfE spokesman said: “We do not comment on speculation.”

This is an article from the 1 April edition of TES. This week’s TES magazine is available in all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here

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