A LEADING private school which banned its teachers from giving out homework has seen its pupils’ results improve dramatically as a consequence.
Many educators were sceptical when John Elder, headmaster at Cargilfield School in Edinburgh, introduced the ban last year.
But yesterday Mr Elder revealed that the new policy had produced a noticeable difference in the performance of pupils sitting entrance exams for senior schools. Exam marks in maths and the sciences have improved by as much as 20 per cent.
"They definitely show an improvement on previous years, particularly in maths and science," Mr Elder said.
"It’s still early days, but the marks are definitely going up instead of down."
Cargilfield is Scotland’s first preparatory school and teaches children aged between three and 13.
Mr Elder introduced the ban on set homework to encourage pupils to become more responsible for what they choose to study away from school while sparing parents the anguish of having to help their children with intricate problems that they themselves barely comprehend.
While formal homework has been scrapped, pupils are taught to organise their own revision timetable outside of school hours.
The school day was also extended to 6pm so that pupils have more time to finish their work and get help from their teachers if necessary.
"It really does cut out the useless work that pupils are sometimes made to do at home that gets them nowhere and is very repetitive," said Mr Elder.
"Our system allows the kids to get on with the work that they know needs doing while not forcing them to do stuff they don’t need to do.
"Another side-effect is that the pupils have more time on their hands to get involved in after-school clubs, which have increased in popularity in the past year."
Bill Milligan, headteacher of Dalmilling Primary in Ayr, said he had no problem with schools not setting homework.
"If children are having difficulty with stuff, you might want to encourage them to practise at home, but I would rather their teachers did it with them," he said.
Mr Elder said yesterday that as expected, the homework ban had proven "very popular" with Cargilfield’s pupils, who no longer have to worry about doing more work once their classes are over for the day.
However, he said the ban had also been welcomed by Cargilfield’s teaching staff and the children’s parents.
"Teaching is a far more major part of the day than sending work home with them," he said.
"When I was a boy most of the homework I was asked to do wasn’t much use. Either I was already good at the subject and didn’t need the extra practice or I didn’t understand and couldn’t do the homework."
He added: "Parents want to know what their children are doing, and we have made provision for them to come into the school and see what the children are working on - but they seem to be relieved they don’t have to help out.
"I have three children myself and my daughter is preparing for her GCSEs and she constantly wants me to help her.
"But I would really rather she was able to do it by herself, and I think many parents feel the same.
"I certainly wouldn’t want many of my parents trying to teach their children how to do maths."
Mr Elder also introduced homework bans when he was headmaster at Beeston Hall School in Norfolk and Malsis School in Yorkshire.
At both schools, he saw similar improvements to those which have taken place at Cargilfield.
"We advise the pupils about work they should do, but it’s up to the pupils when they work out of school hours and what work they want to do," he said.
"It’s a different approach, but the aim at the end of the day is that, at 13, the pupils leave here mature enough to organise their own work for the week, which is what is required of them at other schools."
Schools watchdogs have also praised the progress which has been made at the school, which has just under 200 pupils and charges fees of 12,000 a year, since Mr Elder took over.
A report by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education (HMI) last month highlighted the "strong leadership" provided by Mr Elder and said progress had been made in areas which had needed improvement.
The report said: "The school had improved programmes of study across all areas of the curriculum. As a result, pupils’ learning experiences had improved throughout the school and there was better progression in pupils’ learning from stage to stage.
"Staff now gave more attention to monitoring pupils’ achievements. As a result, attainment in reading, writing and mathematics had improved.
"The commitment of all staff meant that the school was well placed for further improvement."
Fiona Valpy, of the Scottish Council for Independent Schools (SCIS), said the homework ban at Cargilfield was an example of the choice and ariety on offer within the private sector.
She said: "There is great deal of choice in the independent sector, with schools to suit all pupils.
"Different schools have different set-ups for homework. Some boarding schools allow time in the day for pupils to get their prep done.
"But whatever the school, the overall emphasis on academic attainment is always very strong."
Call it what you like, but learning beyond the classroom is for the most part a waste of time
TEACHER: "Did your mother help you with your homework?" JOHNNY: "Naw, she did it all herself."
In my opinion, homework, for the most part, plays no significant part in raising attainment. Indeed, I perceive it to be nothing less than state-sponsored collective punishment of young people, a de facto curfew instrument to please mum and dad.
The homework police - pushy parents and unimaginative school management teams - mistakenly believe force-feeding education after school hours is the panacea for poor SQA results. I feel like taking an airgun to them.
The pro-homework brigade state that it develops independent study skills. Well, having a convict break rocks with a sledgehammer assists his hand-to-eye co-ordination but that is not the point of the exercise. Too often, work after school is repetitive, uninteresting and does little to advance learning. Don’t take my word for it; read the Scottish Executive’s research on homework entitled The Homework File.
This points out that homework increases the effect of social disadvantage, hardly a lofty aim. Supportive parents armed with broadband internet can assist Johnny in his bedroom, sat at his IKEA desk, whereas wee Bobby is attempting to do his work amid the chaos of his dysfunctional family home.
Used properly, homework can be a good tool to assist those students who perhaps are having a little difficulty with some aspects of classwork, but all too often teachers are compelled to follow a school’s inane homework policy that dictates every child, no matter his ability, must do at least two or three hours work at the end of the day.
Thanks to SQA national exam results driving every facet of school life, the modern comprehensive is an education hothouse and pupils often wilt under the pressure.
To be fair, my own school management is aware that the mere mention of the word homework depresses kids, thus the word "homework" has been erased from the vocabulary, to be replaced with the more positive phrase, "learning beyond the classroom". Cynical students unhelpfully point out that these extra tasks have to be written into their homework diaries. Who’s fooling who?