'Stop revision sessions – they don't help anyone'

Extra revision sessions only ramp up pupils' anxiety – they don't help learning or memory, warns Bernard Trafford

Extra revision sessions don't help memory or learning - get rid of them, says Bernard Trafford

It was good to read a powerful argument against the revision classes that impact on the lives of both pupils and teachers. Adam Riches, a specialist leader of education and lead teacher in English, said in Tes that he won’t do them any more.

Hurrah! Early in a school year, when concerns about teachers’ workload are only growing, with no sign of government ever finding the will to reduce pressure on schools, and when evidence of the mental harm caused to children by exam pressure is mounting alarmingly, it’s right to reconsider revision classes.

In some primary schools, those euphemistic “booster classes” will already be underway in Year 6, seeking to crank up a few extra marks for next summer’s Sats. Meanwhile, some secondaries may be well into “extended days” for Year 11, shoehorning extra hours into the week to push those borderline grade 4/5 candidates in English and maths GCSE over the edge to what government regards as a “good pass”.

Many years ago, I became head of an academically successful school and found hard-working, over-conscientious teachers giving up (in my view) too many lunchtimes, after-school sessions and even chunks of holiday to help similarly over-conscientious students with that last bit of revision.

The trouble was, it was the conscientious, hard-working pupils who attended these voluntary sessions: they’d have been better off soaking up the sun, kicking a football around, chatting with their friends – anything to give them a break. Meanwhile, those who should have been taking advantage of them were – you’ve guessed it – soaking up the sun, kicking a football around, chatting with their friends.

Extra revision sessions so often hit the wrong target – or, if compulsory, simply ratchet up the pressure. That’s because they stem, above all, from anxiety.

'Anxiety is the enemy of good education'

Anxiety is the enemy of good education. Yet it’s so human, so understandable. It’s about much more than just wanting to do well. Schools are under immense pressure: some leadership teams see it as their role to pass that pressure directly on to teachers. I wish they didn’t: but some do. Others, I think the majority, do all they can to absorb pressure and avoid communicating it to teachers and to pupils. But it’s hard: with the best will in the world, they don’t always succeed.

Hawkish commentators claim teachers shouldn’t be such snowflakes. That’s unfair: they’re too often leant on and still, even in 2018, rated and scored on their pupils’ grades.

Then there are the kids, constantly told how vital their GCSEs will be to their future: meanwhile, university candidates hold stratospherically high offers (mostly) to win their university place. And they learn anxiety young: this week The Times’ Nicola Woolcock reported a survey finding that primary school children were “coming home stressed about the pressure put on them by exams and the amount of homework [often five hours a week] they had to complete”.  

Revision sessions improve neither learning nor memory. To be sure, some pupils will feel a virtuous glow after putting in those extra hours: for others, these sessions will serve merely to ramp up their anxiety levels.

There are alternative and better approaches. I’m not an expert, and I have no space to list them here. In short, though, school leaders need to encourage their staff, as ever, to think about best teaching methods: to ensure consistency, as they go along, that their pupils have understood, absorbed and learned. Better that than miserable periods of cramming at the end: invariably too much, too late.

As I suggested above, I don’t see government being about to loosen the ratchet on schools any day soon. Nonetheless, the Association of School and College Leaders' Geoff Barton constantly urges that teachers be strong, refuse to succumb to pressure and temptation to cram and act as professionals in the best interests of the children they teach.

Let’s applaud teachers like Adam Riches for leading the way.

Dr Bernard Trafford is a writer, educationist and musician. He is a former independent school headteacher and a past chair of HMC. He Tweets at @bernardtrafford

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