Eve Jardine-Young, the head teacher and former sixth-form pupil of the prestigious and high-achieving Cheltenham Ladies College, may abolish homework at her school. She has told The Times of her concern about “an epidemic of anxiety” that is afflicting young people. Setting children homework, she fears, may be adding to already high stress levels. From September, weekly meditation classes will be introduced and pupils will be given twice as long to walk between lessons.
The sounding of another alarm bell over the mental health of young people should not be ignored. Last year, a survey by The Children’s Society of 50,000 12-year-olds across 39 countries indicated that in terms of subjective wellbeing (how they view their own happiness) English children are near the bottom of the table in 32nd place.
Eve Jardine-Young is right to highlight a real problem. At issue, however, is not the existence of the problem. The issue is how we should help children to confront it and to overcome it.
Getting rid of homework has some superficial and newsworthy attractions. Significantly, Jardine-Young regards homework, aka ‘prep’, as “Victorian” and these days, amongst our educationalists, there are few more damning indictments. How sad that an age in British history that brought so much progress, innovation and worldwide influence should now be so denigrated and disowned. Ironically, it was the age that produced some of our greatest schools, including Cheltenham Ladies College!
“Out with the old and in with the new”, is our current educational mantra. Equally, it could be phrased as, “Out with the baby as well as with the bath water”. The need to be ‘new’, to be ‘radical’ and to be ‘modern’ has as firm a grip on the independent sector as it has at Tony Blair’s “bog standard” comp.
Quite why ‘homework’ should be seen as ‘bad’ escapes me. If a school succeeds in its responsibility to inculcate a love of learning, then homework is educational nourishment, to be sought rather than shunned. Good teaching should inspire pupils and provide them with a desire to know more. Homework can satisfy that desire and, even when it may seem onerous, it provides a discipline that prepares children for life.
Of course, the challenges of some homework, as with all learning, can be stressful. Good teachers, though, will ensure that the ‘prep’ they set is worthwhile and that it reinforces what has been learnt and provides a stepping stone for the next stage of learning. I cannot be the only teacher whose pupils leave the classroom with a desire to know more, to read more, to understand more – in other words, to do some follow-up work at home.
And what about those children who not only want to do homework but who need to do it in order to consolidate their understanding? Failure to master a topic through a lack of homework can be a lot more stressful in the long term than a structured and balanced programme of homework.
The head of Cheltenham Ladies College is unlikely to reduce pupil stress levels by abolishing ‘prep’. Such a decision may, even, have the reverse effect. Instead, she should do some homework of her own and take a close look at her school’s ‘mission statement’:
“To support and guide girls in becoming self-determining, fulfilled and resilient women who value, serve and enrich the communities to which they belong in a complex and changing world.”
The clue to reducing stress levels is in valuing, serving and enriching others. ‘Victorian’ and old-fashioned? Perhaps we have something to learn from the past, after all.