Why less could be more for UAE pupils facing lengthy school days

Experts urge schools in the Emirates to embrace shorter days as longer hours do not necessarily lead to greater productivity

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The daily grind of the working week can take its toll on even the most resilient of employees, with reports of burnout and mental fatigue on the rise around the globe.

But it is not only adults who are dealing with long hours and lengthy commutes as the frantic pace of modern life shows few signs of slowing down.

Private school pupils in the UAE regularly spend seven to eight hours in the classroom, with the addition of extracurricular activities and travel times meaning some spend as many as 12 hours away from home on any given day.

Pupils usually need to wake up between 5.30am to 6.30am to arrive at school between 7am and 8am, while schools finish between 3pm and 4pm.

There is no correlation between more hours and better performance
Erika Elkady, vice principal at Jumeira Baccalaureate School

The challenging schedule, which is mirrored and even more exhaustive in other countries, has raised the question of whether less would be more for the well-being of young minds.

Experts have said long school days do not lead to more productivity, greater learning or improved pupil performance.

How does UAE compare globally?

In Finland, widely regarded as a standard bearer for education standards, pupils start the day at 9am and finish at 2.45pm, putting the school day at less than six hours.

The UK also has an average school day of between five and six hours, with the US at 6.64 hours.

The most taxing school day is to be found in South Korea, with pupils often expected to be learning for 12 hours to 16 hours, with after-school academies in place and dinners served at school.

Pupils in China are typically in the classroom from 8am until 5pm, with the school day in the Philippines also lasting nine hours.

Quality over quantity is key

Pupils at Jumeira Baccalaureate School. Photo: Jumeira Baccalaureate School

Erika Elkady, vice principal at Jumeira Baccalaureate School in Dubai, said it was crucial not to pile too much pressure on children.

“Having longer school days doesn't mean that students learn more and achieve higher; it has been proven by a lot of research in different countries that this is not the case,” she said.

“There is no correlation between more hours and better performance.

“I feel that school leaders with the support of the government need to be brave and they need to stop this.

“We have a moral obligation to look after these kids. We want them to be successful, but we can look at some countries where there is less pressure on pupils.

“Let children be children. We need to look after our young people and stop putting all the pressure on the children with all these long school days; it's not helping them at all.”

Reducing the workload

Jumeira Baccalaureate School shortened its school day by 30 minutes on average in August 2021.

Previously, pupils had to be in school by 7.30am and the first lesson would start at 7.45am. Since August 2021, pupils have to be in school for an 8.15am start and their first lesson is at 8.30am.

Younger pupils finish at 2.50pm while those in grades 11 and 12 finish the school day at 3.30pm. Previously, all pupils finished at 3.15pm.

Children needed time to invent, explore and be creative, but with long school days they were often too tired.

“When they are exhausted, how can they learn?” said Ms Elkady.

Schools in the UAE have historically started early so that children will be able to go home early and not be in a bus or at school during peak heat.

But now, working parents often prefer to drop children to school early on the way to work and pick them up after work as they find this convenient, said Ms Elkady.

Efficient use of time

Mary Carskadon, a professor of psychiatry and human behaviour at Brown University in the US, said people believed more time in the classroom was better but research did not support this.

“In the United States, a state will make a law that we need the kids in the classroom for a certain number of hours a year and they will lengthen the day to accommodate that, but it's not producing gains in learning,” said Prof Carskadon.

“It's not what the pupil's bodies and brains are built to do.”

A 2017 Nigerian study titled Does Longer Instruction Time In School Improve Children’s Performance? said educators and policymakers may mean well for pupils by choosing longer school hours but the optimal use of the time and a consideration of need was more important to education.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development found that the time spent in school was much less important than how it was spent.

Hisham Niaz, 15, a Pakistani grade nine pupil at Jumeira Baccalaureate School, has several extra curricular activities such as football, rugby, basketball, and ends up spending close to 12 hours at school on some days.

He wakes up at 7am to be at school by 8.15am and is usually home by 3pm.

Earlier, he needed to wake up at 6.30am to be in school by 7.45am and would be home by 3.30pm. On days that he has extracurricular activities, he comes home around 7pm.

The pupil lives a walking distance from home but said the shorter hours at his school had helped him.

“I get that extra amount of sleep that I need or a little bit of extra time to do homework or rest,” said Hisham.

“It does get tough but I'm used to it. I think it's very beneficial as that extra 30 minutes to 45 minutes can really help.

“If I have an activity or something, I get that extra boost of energy to go home or just relax and then proceed and do homework.”

More hours does not equal more productivity

Nurture 2 Sleep founder Julie Mallon, an experienced health practitioner and childhood sleep expert, said neuroscience data showed that the golden hour for sleep for schoolchildren up to the age of 11 was 7pm.

Longer hours at school do not make children more productive, she said.

“Some of my parents with younger children say they go to school, they start early, but they watch children's programmes. That is not enhancing our children's learning in any shape or form,” said Ms Mallon.

“The longer school day does not support a greater performance outcome in terms of intellect.”

Mental health experts have pointed to an alarming rise in the number of children with anxiety issues and eating disorders, which, in part, is due to the pressure they face due to long school days, said Ms Mallon.

Anthony Murphy, director of psychology at the University of Birmingham Dubai, said that people often idealised examples found elsewhere around the world.

The Finnish model is often idealised but Finland has a homogenous population for whom that model works, he said.

More research is needed in the UAE to understand what would work here, Mr Murphy said.

Updated: February 05, 2023, 3:57 AM