We have called time on homework at the school I lead – The Mulberry House School in north west London – to give our children more time and space to call their own.
I increasingly believe that formal out of school work – or homework – can impact negatively on children at whatever stage of schooling they are at and I am not alone.
Research carried out by Stanford University showed that 56% of students considered homework to be a source of stress. This study focused on the secondary years when it is not uncommon for many students to have several hours of homework a night, but their conclusions about some of the potential problems caused by homework could just as easily relate to younger years as well. Anxiety, insomnia and mental health issues were all identified in the study as a result of the worry imposed on children by homework.
Most primary level schools in the UK – an estimated 90 per cent – impose some form of homework on children, often geared towards preparation for testing – SATS in the public sector and often 7 and 11 plus in the Independent sector.
In addition, many parents in both sectors have increasingly looked to private tutors to prepare their child that little bit more and seek to give them an edge.
As a pre-prep school, we are caring for and educating children from age 2-7. Obviously, children of this age were not being set great swathes of homework but they were previously expected to do increasing amounts of set homework as they progressed through the school, particularly as many of them were preparing for entrance to prep schools across London.
Entrance to some of these leading schools is extremely competitive and is normally decided on a combination of exams and interview when children are in Year 2 – the so called 7 plus.
Apocryphal tales of the stress these exams impose on parents are rife but what about the stress on children? While I do believe that many children can sail through assessments with little or no stress and even enjoy them, I think that is only the case if the preparation for what is ahead is handled correctly – and, conversely, I now believe the best way to do this is by imposing no stress at all on these very young children in the form of additional work.
So what’s changed in our thinking?
Well, we are and always have been a non-selective school so we are literally first come first served to parents who register their children with us.
By dint of this, we have always had a wide range of children and abilities at our school and yet we have always had a fine record in preparing our pupils for entry into some of the leading schools in London. Let me say that we certainly didn’t do this by loading our children with homework but rather by our approach to teaching them at school.
Pupils leave us with the best possible opportunities ahead of them. I think we manage this success year in and year out precisely because we are not a hothouse school but believe in developing each and every child’s ability through really getting to know them and working with them on their strengths and weaknesses.
Children at The Mulberry House School had an individualised curriculum a long time before ‘individualised curriculum’ became a buzzword!
Of course, as the years have passed at The Mulberry House School, times have changed and we have also seen that children have many other commitments outside school, perhaps going on to take part in clubs and activities in the evening and at weekends.
I began to feel that more and more demands were being placed on our children’s time and energy and it was even more important not to impose extra work on them in their spare time.
Another important factor in our thinking has been seeing a gradual shift in the type of testing many schools in the Independent sector are imposing on young children. I am delighted to see that many have started to change the emphasis of their testing to focus on looking for potential or innate ability rather than to test on acquired knowledge.
I believe this is huge step in the right direction as it will have a knock-on effect allowing other schools to reduce the emphasis on preparation for these exams and also reassuring parents that excessive out-of-school work – and private tutoring – is not necessary or desirable.
We believe that the academic outcomes for our children will not be any different without homework and their mental health and resilience will be stronger as a result. A win-win situation!
We hope we are leading the way in showing that young children benefit when formal learning stays at school and they are free to relax and enjoy their evenings and weekends and make their own discoveries.
As a pre-prep we are honoured to be able to start children on a lifelong journey of learning and begin to explore their skills and talents. The school day is full of wonder and awe for these very young children. Let us hope that this continues well into this decade and beyond!