Strikes, strikes and more strikes! If you hadn’t looked at the news for the past few months, you may have thought that this article would be about a recent visit to a bowling alley — or a baseball match. Unfortunately, these strikes are rather more serious, with nurses, teachers, postal workers, railway workers, civil servants, university staff and ambulance drivers among the groups to down tools. These strikes, while primarily concerned about real-term pay cuts due to the cost-of-living crisis, equally reflect a deep dissatisfaction with our current way of working.

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Teaching?

Let’s start with teaching. It’s a tough job. The thirteen weeks of holiday a year might sound cushy, but those thirteen weeks are earned after 39 weeks of hard, hard toil. Not only do teachers have to teach multiple lessons a day, sharing their knowledge gleaned from years of experience, but they have to plan those lessons. And mark homework. And deal with behavioural issues. And be there for their students when they need them most. And then face the things that life throws at everyone. It shouldn’t, therefore, be a surprise that staff turnover is starting to rise again to pre-pandemic levels. While teachers love helping the next generation develop into confident individuals ready to face the world, the profession itself appears to be becoming less and less rewarding.

If we want to fix the retention issue, we need to change the current mindset. Simply chucking a bit more cash into the education budget, while it may help bring about a much-needed pay rise, cannot change some of the fundamental issues that plague the teaching profession — namely, the workload that transcends their nominal working hours. Teachers often have to spend chunks of their evenings and weekends on mundane tasks like planning lessons and marking students’ work, instead of resting their minds and bodies. Pragmatic reform of the education system could be the spark that brings life and excitement into the profession once more, changing the future of this country. That’s why we need to be bold, and close schools on Wednesdays.

I know it may sound crazy, but think it through. The Government is expecting state schools to deliver a 32-and-a-half-hour school week by September 2023. Over five days, that constitutes six-and-a-half hours a day, including break time, lunchtime, and lesson changeovers. On average, pupils will receive around five hours of teaching a day. By the end of the week, many will be drained and less receptive to learning from having to keep absorbing a continuous stream of information.

Now imagine if schools were closed on Wednesdays. Students could have the day off, or use it to complete any homework due on Thursday or Friday. They also wouldn’t feel so worn down come Friday afternoon. As for teachers, they would finally have more time to plan and mark, and this means less slogging away during evenings and weekends. Everyone wins!

Of course, wiping out five hours of potential teaching time would be irresponsible. Those five hours are, after all, precious hours that allow students to achieve their academic potential. Schools would have to stay open later, with over six hours of lessons on the other four weekdays to make up the time. While some may recoil at the prospect of having to stay to work or study for an additional 1.25 hours four days a week, that extra time ‘stuck’ in school is arguably worth the reward of a whole day off.

Leisure Wednesdays, Anyone?

Of course, shortening school days would probably require a broader restructuring. Many parents would not be able to stay home on a Wednesday — so why not make Wednesdays a day off for workers too? A global trial of a four-day working week found that such a policy has a variety of positive effects, from greater employee engagement to increased revenue. Given that we in the UK have a productivity crisis, surely this could be the policy to release us from those shackles and give us higher growth? Not only would workers be more productive, but there might be more of them, with those over-50s who have become inactive recently potentially being coaxed back into the workforce by the offer of a lighter burden.

A reduction in working hours, and an increase in days off, would also be a positive first step towards eliminating work-related stress that plagues so many people and cost the NHS around £15 billion in 2019. That £15 billion could have been invested in new technology and improving efficiency if we could have effectively prevented these issues from developing. If we fail to take action to prevent work-related stress, we will all be affected by its ripple effect — with NHS budgets having to increase through higher taxes, or the quality of NHS care diminishing as resources become stretched.

The four-day working week may not completely solve the endemic mental health issues we face in the UK, and it may not fix all of the underlying issues in our economy such as the aftermath of Brexit and various global supply chain issues. But after years of pretty average growth figures, we may finally be able to get the British economy back on the rails, if not going full steam ahead.

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