Ysenda Maxtone-Graham

The perils of prep

Prep is so deeply built into schooling, we never pause to wonder if it’s doing any good

The perils of prep
Text settings

‘We will have to look at how we are doing things. Will we even be doing prep?’ So spoke Eve Jardine-Young, principal of Cheltenham Ladies’ College, this summer, galvanised to speak out by the alarming increase in depression among teenagers. It was brave of her even to question the need for prep: in our age of competitive league tables, it seems heresy to suggest any kind of decrease in daily output from students.

But she is right to question it, and I hope her tentative question will soon be transformed into an untentative statement: prep should not be routinely given, and it should only be given if there’s a compelling reason for doing so. This would get rid of the vast majority of prep that children are set at the moment. The time and agony involved in ploughing through evening prep should never be disproportionate to the educational advantage it brings. In my experience, written prep — or homework, for the day-student — has a deadening effect on childhood, wrecks family relationships, wipes out the possibility of children going to the theatre on a weekday, and achieves the opposite of what it is intended to do. It puts children off three vital things: (a) working, (b) the subject and (c) their parents.

No sooner does a child arrive home in the evening, exhausted after eight hours at school, than the mother feels obliged to utter the loathed words, ‘What’s the homework this evening?’ ‘Er… there’s a science sheet to do, and a history essay on “King John: was he good or bad?”’ You look in the school bag (the smell of the shabby school bag is itself redolent of the daily sinking heart) and inevitably you can’t find the science sheet. So you have an instant row at the tea table, and have to ring another kind mother who’s having problems with her scanner.

A black cloud hovers over the evening; the child begs to have free time before starting; and before you know it, it’s 6.30. ‘Time to start.’ ‘I’m stuck.’ The science question is ‘Why did Aisha decide to use propanone rather than water?’ ‘Have you done this in class?’ you ask. ‘We’ve done it a bit, I think.’ So you both Google ‘propanone’ and try to work out what on earth it is and why Aisha might have used it. Anything to help the child get the wretched thing done. For 99 per cent of children, the main aim, when doing homework, is to just get it out of the way. There’s no enjoyment or enthusiasm, and often no sense that the work is leading anywhere.

Half an hour later, it’s over to King John. ‘Have you got any notes?’ ‘No.’ So, with unmotivated child beside you, you look up King John on BBC Bitesize, but the facts it gives are too childish, so you look up King John on Wikipedia, and find yourself wading through section after section about various kinds of loss of French lands, or sometimes gains. It’s bewildering, and now it’s 7.55 and you haven’t cooked the supper, and you take five gulps from a large glass of wine, making it even harder to work out whether King John was good or bad. How teetotal parents get through homework evenings, I can’t imagine. Part of the reason why boarding-schools are still thriving is that parents at their wits’ end can’t face five years of homework-blackened evenings through the teens: £33,000 a year seems well worth the money to avoid that.

This domestic vignette is not the scenario which the teachers who set the homework have in their optimistic minds. They think, ‘Children really grow and become mature from learning to work by themselves in the evenings.’ By setting homework, they give the illusion of progress and industry and of being a hard taskmaster, which is what they think parents want.

But really it is a form of laziness, and it doesn’t make children improve at the subject. It might make the parents improve; it makes all except a tiny fraction of highly self-motivated children hate it, and produce useless essays that they are then expected to revise from. When we send our children to school, we’re saying, ‘Over to you.’ When they come home for the evening loaded with homework, the school is effectively retorting to families, ‘Back to you.’ With holiday homework (six pieces of work to do, plus a project on Nelson, is normal, and most leave it till the last week), there is barely a day of the year when a child is totally psychologically free.

Is this really preparation for adult life? When adults come home from a hard day at the office, are they expected to spend the evening doing homework? Perhaps some, are these days, but in general home is home and the office is the office, and the best work you do is in your actual place of work.

Eve Jardine-Young’s first sentence, ‘We will have to look at how we are doing things’, makes me think, ‘Yes! Teachers, please do look at the way you are doing things. You are wonderful in many ways but you haven’t got homework right.’ Prep/homework is so deeply built into the conventions of education that hardly any teachers dare to stand back and ask, ‘Is this really the best way of making students both good at and keen on my subject?’

Homework should surely be work that cannot properly be done in the classroom: and this is learning. Learning a page of facts; Latin vocabulary; poems by heart; a 1,000-word précis of the life of King John in which we discover whether he was in fact good or bad. A list of useful French words, such as ‘même’ and ‘rien’, which no one ever teaches you. The different kinds of plate tectonic boundary. A sheet of facts about plant cells, ideally written by the teacher him or herself, who has thought hard about what the students actually need to know.

This is a lovely thing to do in the evening (especially with the large glass of wine): sit on the sofa with your son or daughter and a page or two of facts or vocabulary thought out by the teacher, and help him or her to memorise them, inventing mnemonics as you go. Then the next day there should be a test or an essay in class, to ensure that the information has been absorbed. The essay produced in class will be totally the child’s work, rather than a slightly tipsy throwing together of Wikipedia facts plucked out by a desperate parent. It would give the teacher a true picture of how a child is doing. And it would also alleviate the last-minute hell that is revision, because every single piece of learning-style homework is itself a step on the revision road.