Homework is one of the most contentious issues in secondary education. One of parents' most frequent criticisms is that schools are not setting enough homework. Yet most teachers' first cry is that they set homework but many pupils don't do it and their parents do nothing about it. The teachers blame the parents and the parents blame the teachers.
So how should teachers make sense of this? By putting the issue of homework in the context of the school they work in. If you are in a challenging school in an inner-city area, there is often little tradition of doing school homework. Expecting to get a lot of homework goes against the cultural grain. The pupils have found ways of avoiding doing their homework, and it is easy to play parents and teachers off against each other.
So "it wasn't set" really means "I decided not to write it down". Many parents accept what the child tells them when there's a blank page, or the word "none" as a homework entry. They don't regularly look at their children's school work, and don't pursue the matter. They probably didn't do much homework when they were at school. Teachers eventually get demoralised when only a handful of homework tasks are returned out of a whole class. They try to punish the pupils who haven't done theirs by giving them detention, or contacting parents to tell them homework is missing. As a one-off measure, this will often get the child to do it, but not on the next occasion. So chasing up homework can become a frustrating time-waster with a difficult class. In the end, teachers often stop setting it.
But chasing up homework in the right way is still worthwhile. Homework encourages the hardworking pupils to broaden their understanding of the topic they are studying. They may be a small minority, but their interest and enthusiasm needs rewarding.
So how can you get more homework out of your difficult classes? Reward works better than sanctions. Insisting homework is completed in a detention is making a rod for your own back. Pupils made to do homework under duress seldom become regular high-quality homeworkers as a result of their punishment. Don't believe the macho teachers who say that it does; use positive incentives instead.
* Set homework at the start of the lesson.
* Give a low-level reward such as a merit stamp to those who do it.
* Make the checking of homework at the start of the lesson routine.
* Use the school system for recording completion. If there isn't one, make one up.
* Be realistic. A 100 per cent return rate is impossible, but if you can raise it from 30 per cent to 50 per cent, you've done well.
* Send the occasional letter or make the odd telephone call to the marginal students or to parents who you think might respond constructively to this surveillance. Don't waste time on ones who never do anything or bounce the problem back to you.
* Get students who have done good homework to read it out. Give lots of praise.
* Display good homework on the wall. It always pleases the students to get public recognition of their work.
* Think carefully about what you are setting. If you give pupils a task that is easily accessible, they are more likely to do it.
* In a class with an appalling homework return, set homework as an honour and privilege for a few pupils.
Paul Blum is the author of Surviving and Succeeding in Difficult Classrooms (RoutledgeFalmer)