New powers that could alter some schools' hours would require an unusually high level of agreement from parents and families, an education union says.
The Post Primary Teachers' Association is broadly supportive of giving schools more flexibility to set hours, contained in education legislation currently progressing through Parliament, but has warned that boards must be provided with guidelines that will help minimise disruption.
More flexibility would allow schools to see if student achievement improved with a change in hours, officials have argued -- for example, if teenagers were allowed more of a sleep-in.
Tom Haig, the PPTA's advisory officer, appeared before the education and science committee today, and said, as currently set-out, the level of agreement a board would need from parents was unusual.
"I am not aware of this being used in other places, but they talk about the consultation with the community and it being 'generally acceptable'.
"That is putting a higher bar on that type of consultation than on other types of consultation where there is a process that must be followed, but this also shows that there must be, to a certain extent, an agreement reached. So it is moving the consultation more closely to the nature of a negotiation."
Properly handling that sort of process would be much harder for some schools and boards than others, Mr Haig said, and schools would need a lot of support from the ministry so that it wasn't messed up.
Currently, schools have to be open for instruction for a minimum of four hours a day, including a two-hour block in the morning and another two-hour block in the afternoon. They must have approval from the Education Minister to vary those hours.
The Education Legislation Bill will let boards vary when the two blocks of two hours can be taken, after consultation with the school community. Students would still spend the same time in school over the year as students in comparable schools.
A regulatory impact statement prepared by the Ministry of Education on minimum school opening hours said many schools wanted greater flexibility.
Examples of innovation included a school that timetabled most classes before lunch and one class in the afternoon, and another that scheduled fewer classes, with each being 100 minutes long.
Some schools timetabled more lessons in the morning because of a belief that was when students worked best, and others wanted to adopt a later start for teenagers, based on the belief that teenagers' sleep cycles weren't compatible with an early start, the ministry document states.
"Schools may want to test out such options in the interests of improving student achievement, and more flexibility would allow them to do so. While schools can seek an exemption ... the legislation does not allow the Minister to delegate this power."
The PPTA also addressed another aspect of the education bill, that would allow tertiary institutions to run charter or "partnership" schools, which are publicly funded but privately run, and were set-up under an agreement with the Act Party.
Angela Roberts, PPTA president, said it wasn't clear why such a step was required, and appeared to be a desperate attempt to improve the quality of those wanting to open schools.