The Irish school that doesn't believe in homework

One Dublin primary school’s ‘no-homework policy’ has been a resounding success

Teacher Eimear O’Callaghan with 4th class pupils at Loreto Primary School, Rathfarnham. Photograph Nick Bradshaw for The Irish Times

Teacher Eimear O’Callaghan with 4th class pupils at Loreto Primary School, Rathfarnham. Photograph Nick Bradshaw for The Irish Times

 

If the messages I received following a recent column I wrote on my feelings regarding homework are anything to go by, then there’s an awful lot of disgruntled parents who are silently willing an end to afternoons of homework battles with tired and frustrated children. What’s possibly more surprising, however, is that it appears there are a lot of teachers willing an end to homework too.

Yet, on many of us plod, negotiating afternoons of maths, Irish and English sentences, while wishing the powers that be might take a leaf out of their Finnish counterparts’ books and abolish homework for once and for all. But is homework just a necessary evil or should be we looking at a change in how we’re doing things?

Psychotherapist Mary McHugh believes we’re curtailing children’s natural “curious, imaginative and creative” tendencies by “pressuring them to conform.

“Our children, from the age of three, are being trained to sit still and from five upwards, it’s expected that this is the norm.”

Speaking of the expectation that children will sit at a desk in school for several hours a day and then are required to continue doing so at home, McHugh says that “stress is showing up at an alarming scale and yet we’re still applying more pressure academically younger and younger”.

“We’re living in a world of unrealistic expectations both externally and internally. Our young are embodying this as the norm and it’s not okay,” McHugh continues. “We need equal hours of work, rest and play in our adulthood – which most of us do not have. How many of our children have that balance and who is ensuring that this happens?”

Pointing towards the change in parental circumstances, McHugh says parents in today’s world are under “severe pressure. They work long hours and are trying to juggle everything. Spending time helping children with their homework can add more stress to their relationship, which can lead to disconnection.

“Some of our children may leave their home in the morning and not return for up to 12 hours. This is pressure and we are seeing it in our children, who are presenting with extreme anxiety, eating disorders, behavioural difficulties and auto-immune illnesses.

Homework was causing stress for the children, stress for the parents policing the doing of homework and pressure on the teachers to mark homework

“Our children need to get out and learn to have time at play. This allows a digestion of the information they take in at school.”

‘A lot of stress’

Sr Maria Hyland, principal of Loreto Primary School, Rathfarnham, Dublin, which is currently trialling a “no-homework policy” (except for 6th class) says she’d noticed “that there appeared to be a lot of stress around the whole area of homework”.

“Homework was causing stress for the children, stress for the parents policing the doing of homework and pressure on the teachers to mark homework that is ‘do-able’ at home, explain it and ensure all knew what they were required to do.”

Along with the “inordinate amount of time” it took some students to take down their homework and pack their books, there was the inevitable and frequent packing of the incorrect book, which Sr Maria explains led to “tears at homework time”, “parents coming back to collect the forgotten book” or “contacting other parents on WhatsApp to see what their little darling was supposed to be doing”.

Sr Maria Hyland, principal of Loreto Primary School, Rathfarnham: “Children come in fresh and happy in the mornings. There is a great buzz around the place, which is nice.” Photograph Nick Bradshaw for The Irish Times
Sr Maria Hyland, principal of Loreto Primary School, Rathfarnham. Photograph Nick Bradshaw

“School children need to rest their minds and relax a little to recharge their batteries. And to take time to explore something of interest to them.”

Quoting Jean Piaget, Sr Maria says “the goal of education is not to increase the amount of knowledge but to create the possibilities for the child to invent and discover. To create people who are capable of doing new things.”

In class, teachers are finding they can assess the children’s work rather than the parents’ work

Initial reaction from parents to the no-homework policy has been “extremely positive”, Sr Maria explains. Those with reservations “have said they are willing to try it and are keeping an open mind about it”.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, “the children are very happy”.

The policy will not impact on the teacher’s ability to cover the curriculum, Sr Maria says. “In fact, it gives more teacher-pupil contact time and teachers feel they have more time for teaching than trying to get homework corrected and sorted. In class, teachers are finding they can assess the children’s work rather than the parents’ work. Very often, the standard of homework did not match the child’s classroom ability as there was too much help from parents, which is understandable when parents are under pressure to get the homework over with and try and restore peace to the house.

“The Friday test and other assessments will inform parents of how their child is doing in class.

“Already, parents are saying they have more time for chatting with their child and one parent said they now have time to play a board game in the evening.

‘Fresh and happy’

“Children come in fresh and happy in the mornings,” Sr Maria adds. “There is a great buzz around the place, which is nice.”

Alison Walsh’s three daughters, Sarah, (5th), Ellie (3rd) and Isabel (1st) class attend Loreto. “At first, I was actually a little bit apprehensive” she explains. “I was a little bit concerned about supporting their schoolwork at home. As it’s being rolled out, I can see that it’s actually great.”

It’s given me more time in the evening. The children are definitely less stressed as well

Because the children still have Friday tests, they still revise their spellings and tables, Walsh explains, but this can be done during the week as suits.

“In the initial email that the school sent out, they encourage children to play outside, help cook the dinner, to record and watch the children’s news. That’s actually been my favourite part of it. I just think it’s great that they’re a little bit more aware of what’s going on in the world.

“It’s given me more time in the evening. The children are definitely less stressed as well.” Following mid-week after-school activities, Walsh says her children now have time to call for their friends who live on the road.

Lynne Caffrey’s daughters Lois and Holly are in 2nd and 1st class respectively in Loreto. She was initially a little worried about the “no-homework policy”, as focused projects had replaced standard homework in the children’s previous school. Parental involvement in these projects had created competitiveness, she explains.

“Loreto communicated it so well and the rationale was so clear that I trusted them.

“I work every day, so to come home and not have to negotiate it [homework] when the children are tired and I’m hungry is a revelation. It led to fights and the urge to correct mistakes was huge, which wasn’t good for their esteem.”

While it took a little adjusting to the new routine, Caffrey says “it’s calmer and the house is less stressed. It feels like I can really enjoy the time I get with them. So far, it’s been a very welcome change. I did fear resentment building as the homework became more substantial with each year. They definitely love being the kids in afterschool who get to play outside instead of doing homework!”

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